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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sharing glory with Old Glory

BILL PLASCHKE 

— By

click image to enlarge
Cejudo Henry, of U.S., reacts after defeating Tomohiro Matsunaga, of Japan, in the final of 55Kg category of men's freestyle wrestling competition of the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2008. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
AP
Los Angeles Times
BEIJING: He has shared everything for most of his 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 also would 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 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 USA is the best country in the world because it allows you to express yourself in whatever you can do best,'' said his brother Alonzo, in 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-kilogram victory against Tomohiro Matsunaga of Japan. ''I might just sleep with this.''
The tiny, bushy-haired champ smiled a huge smile, his face a 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.
Born in 1987 in south Los Angeles, Cejudo faced the 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 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.
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.
''I finally had my own bed,'' he said. ''But I was lonely in it.''
He was knocked out of the first round of last year's world championships, weeping in defeat and needed a late comeback to win the Olympic trials.
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 final, he was a little tired, a little sad, but plenty inspired.
The United States is the kind of place where you can choose your own path,'' he said. ''We should never forget that.''