Two and a half years after becoming the youngest U.S. wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal at 21, Henry Cejudo still is adjusting.
Now 23, the self-proclaimed ghetto kid who grew up in trying neighborhoods of Los Angeles and Phoenix now conducts seminars for businessmen and women on what it takes to be a champion. He has traveled to France, Japan, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and to his mother’s native Mexico to teach wrestling clinics and give lectures.
Cejudo (pronounced seh-hoo-dough) has written a book, “American Victory.” Politicians have asked him to advocate against the Arizona immigration laws. Adidas named a shoe after him.
And now he is back on the mat, making a comeback which he hopes will end with a trip to the London 2012 Olympic Games. He has been training in Colorado Springs at the U.S. Olympic Training Center since the middle of this month with national freestyle coach Zeke Jones. USA Wrestling recently announced that Cejudo will compete in the Cerro Pelado International in Havana, Cuba, Feb. 19-20, marking his first competition since the gold-medal finals in Beijing.
“I always dreamt about winning gold, but you really don’t think about the aftermath,” Cejudo said. “I just figured, OK we’re going to have fun for a week and do lots of media. But my story, I guess it struck a lot of people, so, yeah, the aftermath was like a tornado, an earthquake and tsunami all at once.”
The son of Mexican immigrants, Cejudo was born in Los Angeles on Feb. 9, 1987.
While his father bounced around various California penitentiaries, his mother, Nelly Rico, worked multiple jobs to provide for her six children. The family relocated often as Nelly looked for stable work. Cejudo said eviction notices and midnight moves were common. He faced peer pressure — to join gangs and sell drugs.
He faced even more pressure from his mom.
“We always had to be in school,’’ Cejudo said. “We had to do this and that, whatever she asked. My mom came to this country when she was 16. She didn’t speak any English. I take her work ethic, her dedication; that’s where I get it from.
“We grew up extremely poor, but we grew up with a very high self-esteem. I never really understood how she did it. She had every reason to give up, but she always just implemented this attitude in us that we can do and be anything.”
Introduced to wrestling by his older brother, Angel, — a four-time high school state champion in Arizona — Henry Cejudo took all that pressure, good and bad, and released it on the mat.
“I thought everyone was soft,” Cejudo said. “There was all this violence around us, but the thing is, you don’t really think about that. You sort of build that toughness and that callus over your heart. Whenever you feel or see weakness you just want to destroy it. I wasn’t allowed to be weak, so whenever I see weakness in others, I just attack.”
From his first moments on the mat, Cejudo focused on becoming an Olympic champion.
After winning a pair of state titles during his freshman and sophomore years at Maryvale High School in Phoenix, he accepted an invitation from Dave Bennet, the national developmental freestyle coach for USA Wrestling, to attend the resident freestyle training program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Cejudo transferred to Colorado Springs Coronado High School where he won two more state titles while finishing his education. In 2006 he was named the ASICS National High School Wrestler of the Year. Cejudo bypassed the traditional, collegiate wrestling route opting instead to train full time at the OTC in preparation for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
In 2008, Cejudo won Olympic gold in the 55-kilogram weight class.
“It was complete disbelief. Even holding my medal, I would wonder if I was still dreaming,” Cejudo said. “I actually pinched myself on top of the medal stand, like, ‘No this cannot be happening. But I was awake.’ ”
Following his gold, Cejudo appeared on all of the major morning shows. He was on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,’’ and ESPN’s “SportsCenter’’. He chatted with Oprah, and in 2008 The Arizona Republic named Cejudo one of the state’s 10 most fascinating people of the year.
Flush with a little cash from endorsements and appearances, Cejudo bought a 2007 Mercedes Benz E500. He gave his gold medal to his mother.
“I want to say I didn’t change,’’ Cejudo said. “I mean, I’ll always be Henry. I’ll always be myself.
“But I’ll go to back to the ghetto and I don’t do the things I used to do when I was a kid.’’
Like drying off with a roll of the gym’s paper towels after a workout, for example, or taking the city bus to get around town.
An article in the Jan. 13 edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette said Cejudo spent the last two and a half years, “living like a celebrity, partying like a rock star and dressing like a pimp,” all of which Cejudo vehemently denied.
He called himself a family man, adding he spends most of his time away from the mat with his mom and siblings. He said he’s trading in his Mercedes for “something more economical, like a truck, something that can stand up to Colorado winters.”
“In the four years I’ve been in Colorado Springs, I maybe once or twice went to a club,” Cejudo said.
“I never took anything off. I’d not work out for a day at the most, maybe. I’m still totally focused.”
His focus is on London and the many steps it will take for him to get back to the top of the medal podium. He’s not overlooking anyone in his quest for a second Olympic gold — not the high school kids vying for his spot on the U.S. national team, not the international newcomers who are working diligently to make sure he doesn’t get a second victory.
Cejudo still considers himself an underdog, and he realizes just how big the target is that he’s wearing on his back.
“I have a giant X with all these little X’s around it,” Cejudo said with a laugh. “It’s not going to change me though. I’m going to work hard regardless. I’ve had pressure my whole life. All of my childhood was pressure. Compared to all of that, this is just a walk in the park to be honest with you. I’m a performer and I know if I work extremely hard and wrestle at my best, I know I can do it again.”
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Annabelle Tometich is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.