Hard charging Henson focused on bringing home his second World gold medalWhen Sammie Henson first stepped on a wrestling mat as an 8-year-old, he obviously had no idea where his career would take him.
But as his career progressed and the stakes continued to become higher, the powerful, high-energy Henson continued to dominate. And continued to win.
He was a three-time state champion and a two-time NCAA champion. He made a smooth and rapid transition to the international level and broke through in 1998 by earning what ranks as the biggest victory of his life. He won a gold medal at the World Championships in Tehran, Iran.
Everything was unfolding exactly the way he had envisioned.
Until that day in Sydney, Australia.
His opponent that day in the 2000 Olympic freestyle finals at 54 kg/119 lbs. was rival Namik Abdullaev of Azerbaijan, the same wrestler Henson had defeated 3-1 to win the World gold medal in 1998.
Abdullaev pulled out a controversial 4-3 win in a match which included some grabbing of Henson's singlet by Abdullaev that was not penalized by officials. Henson was shattered by the loss, breaking down and crying in an emotional post-match scene.
"I was devastated," Henson said. "I let the guy take me down and ankle lace me. It was bad strategy. I went too hard, too fast. That loss hurt me for a long, long time. The reason I was so devastated was I worked my whole life since I was 8 years old to win the Olympics. I was going to be Olympic champion and nobody was going to stop me. When it didn't happen, I didn't know how to handle it or how to cope with it."
Henson never retired, and actually won a few events of significance overseas, but competed sparingly over the next four years as he coped with the stunning loss in the Olympics.
"After 2000, I never seemed to have a game plan and didn't know what I wanted to do as far as training and competing," he said. "I kept winning international tournaments, but the passion wasn't always there. I was kind of burned out with everything. You really have to have a passion for this to be successful."
But the passion and the fire came back. Henson rededicated himself to the sport in 2004 and finished a close second to Stephen Abas at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. Abas went on to win an Olympic silver medal.
"Competing against Abas really motivated me," Henson said. "He took his game to the next level and he beat me. Seeing that fire in his eyes, like I had in 2000, that really pushed me."
A year later, Henson made the 2005 World Team. Now 35 years old, Henson is ready to make a splash on the World stage after capturing the U.S. World Team Trials title at 55 kg/121 lbs. on May 27 in Sioux City, Iowa. He will compete at the World Championships on Sept. 26-Oct. 2 in Guangzhou, China.
Henson proved he is ready to contend for a World medal this year after he won the Uzbekistan Golden Grand Prix in March. Henson beat Abdullaev 1-2, 2-1, 5-1 in the first round. He went on to beat two-time World champion Dilshod Mansurov of Uzbekistan in the finals.
"Beating the guy I lost to in the Olympics and beating a two-time World champion was really huge for me," Henson said. "Winning that tournament and beating those guys really elevated me and let me know Sammie Henson is really back. I know I can do it again now."
Henson, who competes for the Sunkist Kids, skipped the U.S. Nationals this year after coming down with stomach flu the week of the event. That opened the door for 19-year-old phenom Henry Cejudo, then still a senior in high school, to capture the 121-pound title in Las Vegas.
Since Henson did not compete in Vegas, the highest he could be seeded for the World Team Trials in Sioux City was third. But as expected, the third-seeded Henson advanced to the best-of 3 finals for a much-anticipated showdown with the fan favorite in Cejudo.
Cejudo surprised Henson in the first match by shooting in for a late takedown near the edge of the mat to win the first period. But Henson was in control from there as his clear edge in strength and experience was the difference. But Cejudo never quit, gaining a pair of late takedowns in the final period of the second match before falling short.
"That kid is well beyond his years," Henson said. "He's going to win some World and Olympic titles. You can't worry about age. At this point, if you have the desire, age makes no difference."
Henson does marvel at how good Cejudo is for a guy who just graduated from high school last week.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see how much potential Henry has," Henson said. "He has a great upside. It's amazing what he's doing as a 19-year-old. I've seen how hard he works in practice and I've seen how focused he is. He has a great mentor in Terry Brands and he obviously has a very bright future in this sport."
So what was the key to beating Cejudo?
"I was able to control the pace and control the tempo," Henson said. "I never really felt threatened in the matches. I gave up three points at the end of the first period because I stopped wrestling and let up a little bit and he took advantage of it. I felt comfortable and confident out there. I wasn't even close to my peak physically in Sioux City. I felt strong, but Henry went harder than I did. He was in way better shape than I was."
Henson lost to a wrestler close to Cejudo's age in the second round of the 2005 World Championships. He fell to 19-year-old Zalimkhan Kutseev of Russia. Henson was eliminated from the tournament when Kutseev lost to Abdullaev in his next match in the quarterfinals.
"It was ugly, it was embarrassing," Henson said. "I didn't wrestle well. I was ready and our coaches had me trained to compete at a high level, but I just didn't get it done. I felt like I let my country down, my family down, everything."
The stocky, 5-foot-4 Henson said that loss has lit a fire under him for this year. He said he has managed his weight and his training better this year.
"The weight cutting affected me last year," he said. "I'm lighter now and not cutting as much. I'm not eating everything in sight now and I cut out some soda and some other things that have helped me keep my weight down.
"I've also shortened up the amount of time I train. Instead of training and wrestling for six weeks before a tournament, I would do three to four weeks of wrestling. I've gotten smarter with my training as I get older. That has kept me fresher mentally and physically."
Henson has juggled his training, competing and coaching duties with trying to raise a young family. He and his wife, Stephanie, have two sons and a daughter. The two boys, Jackson, 6, and Wyatt, 3, already have shown an interest in wrestling. Their daughter, Ruby, is 2.
"Every day, I wish I had an Olympic gold medal around my neck," Henson said. "Am I going to let it affect me or who I am when I'm with my family? Not a chance. My wife and family mean everything to me. They're amazing. My wife has been real supportive of my career."
Henson also hopes to become a collegiate head coach. He was an assistant coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga last season under his own freestyle coach, Joe Seay, but won't return next season after Seay recently resigned from his position. Henson said he hopes to land another coaching job for next season.
Henson chuckles when asked if he will make a run at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. He would be 37 years old.
"I just take it one day a time now," he said. "I feel good and now I have another opportunity to win a World gold medal. I'm very lucky and very blessed to still be wrestling. A lot of guys my age have given it up.
"My wife thinks this is it. China is it. There are two Chinas. I say '08 … She just doesn't know which one."
As crushing as the loss in the Olympics was for him, Henson always will have the memory of that day in Tehran, Iran, when he won the 1998 World Championships and received a huge ovation from the wrestling-mad fans in that country. He won that title at age 27.
"Looking back, I was really green when I won my World title - I was still pretty young," he said. "You can't describe how amazing winning an event like that was. To win in Iran was an extra special thing. To win and represent your country was incredible. I want to experience that feeling again.