Cejudo Done Grappling With the Past

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 19 -- The easy thing to do, when Henry Cejudo broke out in tears and wrapped himself in the American flag, would be to become engrossed in a maudlin tale about overcoming adversity, about how sports can change lives. In Cejudo's case, it would ring true, because his parents emigrated illegally from Mexico, his mother ran from his crime-addled father, he slept in the same bed as one of his siblings and Tuesday, he wrestled his way to an Olympic gold medal.

Cejudo will leave that on the mat, thank you, right where he left Japan's Tomohiro Matsunaga, the man he defeated to win freestyle wrestling's 55-kilogram weight class, taking the first two periods, one by tiebreaker, in the best-of-three match. Cejudo will take his gold medal. He will tell the story of how, at 21, he became the youngest Olympic wrestling champion in U.S. history. He will, however, take no sympathy.

"To me," Cejudo said, "I've always had everything."

The particulars of Cejudo's background likely will be well known as soon as NBC plays the tape of his Tuesday, a four-victory day that culminated in gold. His mother, Nelly Rico, raised seven children by herself, moving, as Cejudo said, "about 50 times," even once in the middle of the night to escape Cejudo's father, Jorge, who spent more than a little time in prison.

"Drugs, all kinds of stuff," said Cejudo's older brother, Alonzo Cruz. "But we never really talked about him, to be honest."

By the time Jorge Cejudo died last year, Henry hadn't seen him since he was 4. So the family, instead, talked about Rico. "We called her 'The Terminator' back home," Cejudo said. She worked various jobs, assembly line, "a little bit of everything," said another of Cejudo's older brothers, Angel, his training partner.

"She's been a father and a mother," Henry Cejudo said. "She's such a tough lady. . . . I don't know how she did six, seven [children]. She's Superwoman."

Superwoman or not, the reality for Nelly Rico's children was that there would not be separate rooms, nor separate beds, as they grew up. After Rico scooped up her kids and fled Los Angeles, wary of Jorge Cejudo's presence, the family landed in Las Cruces, N.M., then Phoenix. Angel and Henry forged their way out through wrestling, albeit a bit unusually. Neither wanted to go to college, even though Henry's 150-0 record and four state high school championships could have gained him admission somewhere. They ended up in Colorado Springs at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

Training for Olympic wrestling in the isolation of Colorado Springs is difficult enough that the coaches often see wrestlers leave in the middle of a training cycle. But in Colorado Springs, Cejudo no longer had to share a bed, no longer had to share a blanket, the things he had done all his life. Still, it seemed a strange path. There must have been doubters.

"I think everybody" had doubts, Cejudo said. " 'You're never going to make the team. You'll never beat so-and-so, and this guy.' But I always believed in myself."

His mother also allowed Henry and Angel to wrestle for a living, albeit a meager one. She had whipped them into shape at a younger age -- "She would beat the crap out of us if we didn't go to church," Cruz said -- so she allowed them to pursue what they loved.

"She would always tell us when we were a kid, 'If you want to be an astronaut, be an astronaut,' " Cejudo said. " 'Or a doctor, be a doctor. President?' She was always really encouraging."

Which is why those who grew to know Rico's family, her children, became impressed. There is a reason Cejudo believes he has always had everything.

"I always tell people who say he came from a broken home: Don't confuse 'poor' with broken," said Terry Greiff, a wrestling coach from Phoenix who has served as something of a mentor to Cejudo and his brothers. "There's a lot of rich families that don't have the kind of love that family has."

That family showed up here to root on their blood. Virtually the only member who didn't pack into the stands was Nelly Rico herself. "She's too nervous," Cruz said. Perhaps the other members of the family should have been nervous, too. Cejudo said his goal when he arrived here was simple.

"Gold," he said. "That's all there is to it. I've never trained for second place and third place."

But he also never had won an international match. He went 0-1 at the world championships last year. There was a chance his entire clan could have packed up and headed home, winless.

Cejudo, though, began the day with a victory over Bulgaria's Radoslav Velikov. Two victories later, he was in the final against Matsunaga, who upset 2007 world champion Besik Kudukhov of Russia in the semifinal.

In the stands, Cejudo's family was difficult to contain. Ushers "came over like 20 times," Angel Cejudo said. Angel and Henry had trained together, slept in the same bed, shared the same dream. Angel, though, was too nervous to speak -- until Cejudo clinched the match, winning the second period, 3-0. Then it hit him: "He's the Olympic champ."

After Cejudo cried and wrapped himself in the American flag, the family called Rico, back home. She had spent most of the match in the bathroom, throwing up because of nerves. But when she got the result, "She did a back flip," Henry said.

"He's not a victim," said Cejudo's coach, Terry Brand. "He has chosen not to be that way. And that's important that Americans understand that. It's not 'Woe is me.' It's about fighting. It's about competing. It's about working hard. If you want to get out of the slum, then you go to work."

Henry Cejudo went to work Tuesday, and he produced a gold medal. It is the product of years of work. It is not, he wants to be clear, a tale of the downtrodden, even if he didn't have a father, even if he didn't have much growing up. His background didn't prevent him from achieving anything.

"It is what it is," he said. "It's a done deal. That's life."

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