Until Tuesday, few people knew the name Henry Cejudo. He lost in the first round of the World Championships of wrestling, landing in 31st place. At the Olympics in Beijing, he struggled in the beginning matches. But in a turn of events no one could have expected, Cejudo managed to qualify for the finals. From there on out, it was history in the making. Henry Cejudo won the 121-pound weight class match against Tomohiro Matsunaga, winning a the first Gold medal ever for the USA in freestyle wrestling and becoming the youngest Olympic Wrestling Champion in U.S. history. His face flooded with tears, he wrapped himself in the American flag and paraded sround the arena as some in the crowd wept openly along with him.
What makes this Olympic moment even more memorable is what Cejudo has wrestled with outside of the arena. His mother, Nelly Rico, immigrated to the U.S. illegally from Mexico and raised seven kids on her own while working minimum-wage jobs. Cejudo told the Today Show, “My mom is a strong woman. She came to the U.S. about 30 years ago and she‘s been in the U.S. ever since. She raised seven kids by herself. I look up to her. She’s my hero. She’s just the toughest lady you’ll ever meet.”
Growing up, Cejudo found his escape in wrestling. Following in the steps of his brother Angel, he joined a youth wrestling program in Phoenix, AZ. Cejudo won four wrestling state titles before moving to Colorado to train for the Olympics. “I was one of the youngest [kids], so I was picked on ... had a couple of knuckle sandwiches here and there,” Cejudo continued in his interview. “But it was all worth it. We take care of each other. My success is their success. That’s the way we were brought up.”
After his emotional win on Tuesday, the first thing the wrestling champ did was phone his mother. He told the Today Show, “She was in tears. I had never seen my mom cry. She’s that tough, you know what I mean? But she was crying on the phone, telling me she loves me and she misses me.”
There is irony in the fact that the son of an illegal immigrant brings glory to a nation that didn’t openly welcome his family, but coach Kevin Jackson has called him “the future of wrestling” and we can only hope this amazing moment demonstrates the many faces of the American dream.
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