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BILL PLASCHKE

From humble beginnings, an American dream

August 20, 2008|Bill Plaschke

BEIJING — He has shared everything for most of his scuffled life, from twin beds to sofa cushions to last bites.

It only made sense, then, that when he stunningly won an Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling Tuesday, the Los Angeles-born son of undocumented Mexican immigrants would also share.

With his most beloved piece of cloth.

The American flag.

Oh, what a pair they made, young Henry Cejudo and Old Glory, dancing cloth-to-cheek across the floor of a gym that rocked and roared in disbelief.

That flag gave a chance to a kid who paid for wrestling by selling tamales on the street. That kid now held it tight as he dropped to the mat and dissolved in tears.

"I'm living the American dream," said Cejudo, 21. "The United States is the land of opportunity, and I'm so glad I can represent it."

The flag gave his mother a chance to raise six children on menial wages in countless apartments from Los Angeles to Las Cruces, N.M., to Phoenix. The son now flapped it across his back like a cape, as if showing the world how it had enabled him to fly.

"The U.S.A. is the best country in the world because it allows you to express yourself in whatever you can do best," said his brother Alonzo, watching from the stands. "Wrestling is just Henry's way."

That flag gave a high school education to a kid too poor to celebrate Christmas, then gave that kid a chance to become an Olympian even after he finished 31st in last year's world championships. The kid now wore the flag around the gym like an expensive new coat, and later refused to take it off.

"I don't want to let it go, man," Cejudo said about an hour after his 55-kg victory over Japan's Tomohiro Matsunaga. "I might just sleep with this."

The tiny, bushy-haired champion smiled a huge smile, his face a strange mixture of tears and welts and happiness, and it was then he was reminded America had one more thing to give him.

For winning the gold medal, he will be awarded bonuses and donations equaling $65,000.

"I'm rich!" he screamed.

No, it was the rest of us who were rich, witnessing a moment that could only happen at the Olympics and, yes, perhaps only in America.

"This is unreal," said Frank Saenz, his Phoenix-area high school coach who was weeping with others in the stands. "Such a big country . . . how does this happen?"

How, indeed? Born in 1987 in South Los Angeles to two undocumented Mexican immigrants, Cejudo faced the same long odds encountered by thousands in his neighborhood.

When he was 4, his parents separated and his mother moved his family to New Mexico. Two years later, his single mom moved the family to Phoenix.

With only one couch in his living room, and at least one or two siblings in his bed until he was 17, there wasn't much.

"So we took off the couch cushions and used them to fight," said Alonzo, Cejudo's brother. "We were like 'American Gladiators.' "

Soon the fighting moved to the gym, where Cejudo and his older brother Angel became high school stars.

When Angel moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., Henry followed, even though he was just a high school junior at the time. It immediately provided him the one thing he thought he had been missing.

"I finally had my own bed," he said. "But I was lonely in it."

His father died of heart failure in Mexico City after a long battle with drugs, and Henry couldn't make it to the funeral. He won championships while still in high school, but matured slowly after that, and there were times it seemed he would fail his potential.

"He could be in prison, he could be a drug dealer, he could be a lot of things," said his coach, Terry Brands.

But an Olympic champion?

"Nobody believed but us," Angel said.

He was knocked out of the first round of last year's world championships, weeping in defeat.

He needed a late comeback to win the Olympic trials. He needed to drop 10 pounds just to make weight Tuesday.

Then, once his long wrestling day began, he needed to come back to win all three of his preliminary matches.

By the time he reached the finals, he was a little tired, a little sad, but plenty inspired.

His mother, Nelly Rico, was not in the Beijing Agricultural University Gymnasium stands, because she does not have a passport.

"If you ask my mom, she will tell you she is American," he said, later adding, "This gold medal is hers."

A collection of family and friends did show up, and with such vigor, they were nearly ejected. During his match, the Cejudo clan refused to sit down despite repeated admonitions from frustrated security people.

"We didn't want to get thrown out but, if your little bro is down there, what are you going to do?" Alonzo said. "After a while, [the guard] just got tired of it."

Down on the mat, Cejudo was tired of messing around. He immediately attacked Matsunaga's legs and pushed him around the mat, scoring enough to win each of the first two rounds in the best-of-three format, giving him the victory.

After which, Cejudo immediately began crying and looking for that flag, taking it back to the mat for what will become not only the signature celebration of his career, but perhaps of these entire Olympics.

"The United States is the kind of place where you can choose your own path," he said. "We should never forget that."

Henry Cejudo's path -- slippery and scrabbled and wonderfully star-spangled -- perhaps ensures that we won't.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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