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Henry Cejudo grew up hungry, literally.
There were a lot of mouths to feed in his family. He was one of seven kids. His mother, a single parent, sometimes worked two jobs to make ends meet.
“It was a struggle,” said Cejudo, the 2008 Olympic champion who told his story last Friday night during an appearance in Meeker. “I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon. If anything, I grew up with a plastic spoon, because it would break. My mom coming from Mexico City at the age of 15, crossing the border illegally. She came here to give us a better life, and she did.”
That hunger carried over to what would become Cejudo’s passion — wrestling.
During last summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, Cejudo seemingly came from nowhere to win the only gold medal in wrestling for the United States. At 121 pounds, the 21-year-old Cejudo beat four older, more experienced opponents to take the gold in freestyle wrestling.
“I was ranked in the 30s in the world,” he said. “I had to qualify to get to the Olympics. Everybody was seeded higher than me. Nobody saw me coming. I think they underestimated me. I came out like a pit bull.”
That dogged determination has pushed Cejudo his whole life. As a kid, he dreamed of someday reaching the Olympics.
“The first day I stepped on the mat, I was like, you know what, I’m going to be in the Olympics someday,” Cejudo said. “As a kid watching the Olympics at the age of 8, I think it was, I saw Michael Johnson, the big track star. I remember watching him and thought, whatever it was, I wanted that same feeling. And I had a chance to feel that same feeling.”
Explaining what it felt like to take his place on the victory stand with a gold medal around his neck is difficult to put into words, Cejudo said.
“It’s really a blessing, man,” Cejudo said. “I don’t think I can really explain it to you guys. There was just so much emotion.”
Cejudo can testify that making it to the Olympics and winning a gold medal takes a lot of hard work.
“I’m here to tell you guys, winning the gold medal, you’re not born with it,” Cejudo said. “You have to work; you have to sacrifice. I’ve been wrapped up in chasing it (the Olympic dream) for four years, four long years.”
Cejudo trained six to eight hours a day, six days a week at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in preparation for the Olympics. He called himself a mat rat. His training regimen consisted of lifting weights, running, even yoga, and he did lots of old-fashioned push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups.
“That’s better than lifting weights,” Cejudo said, adding the yoga kept him injury-free.
In Beijing, he maintained his intensity. Some of his teammates, perhaps, were not as focused.
During a question-and-answer session with the audience last Friday, Cejudo was asked why he thought he was the only U.S. wrestler to win a gold medal.
“I can’t speak for them,” he said. “I know what I did right. I was just committed. I got my rest. I never drank, never smoked, never did any of that. I think some of them had a little too much fun. It was like this was my dream. I just had a pure focus.”
The dedication and focus paid off for Cejudo. Since winning the gold medal at the Olympics, he is in demand to tell his story. Sometimes, when he looks at his life now, he still finds it hard to believe.
“It’s been crazy,” he said. “It’s just amazing to me, where I am now, and to have the opportunity to be on the Jay Leno Show, on Oprah Winfrey. I had a chance to meet President Bush not once, but twice. I still feel like I’m dreaming, you know.”
Yes, life has changed for Cejudo.
“Winning the Olympic gold, people are actually nice to me,” he said, laughing.
He has come a long way from the rough-and-tumble world of south-central Los Angeles, where his family lived until he was 4. They then moved to Las Cruces, N.M., and from there to Phoenix.
If anything, his meager beginnings kept him grounded.
“It’s very humbling to sit here and speak to you guys,” Cejudo said. “I was one of those kids who never saw myself able to speak to people. I was kind of a little shy kid.”
But he always had a burning desire to compete, Cejudo said. And wrestling was a perfect fit for a kid who liked to tussle.
“I was pretty athletic, but wrestling was just one of those combat sports that I thought I could do,” said Cejudo, whose first love was soccer. “I always liked to fight. We grew up very tough. Before we (his older brother Angel, who also trains at the Olympic Center) and I decided to wrestle, we used to fight.”
Yet, his message to parents last Friday was don’t drive your kids to the point where wrestling isn’t fun.
“Don’t push them so much,” said Cejudo, who put on a wrestling clinic last Friday while in Meeker. “Let ‘em be happy. I see a lot of dads who ruin their relationship with their boys through wrestling. I disagree with that. They can figure out their own journey. You just support ‘em. Just love ‘em, really.”
To the wrestlers in the crowd, he told them, “Just be yourself. You need to be faithful to yourself.”
Cejudo had that all-consuming desire to become the best in the world.
“Sometimes, it’s in your blood,” he said.
Not content with making it to the Beijing Olympics, Cejudo already has his sights set on the 2012 Games.
“Yeah, definitely, I’ll be back at the Olympics,” he said. “I’m still young. I’m still hungry. I definitely still want to continue.”
If he does qualify for the Olympics again, it will be in a higher weight class.
“I cut a lot of weight,” he said. “In China, I cut about 10 pounds in two hours the day I weighed in. It sucked. I’ll never do that again. I’m definitely moving up.”
While he still has a burning desire to be a world-class wrestler, Cejudo wants to take advantage of the opportunities that have opened up to him since winning the gold medal.
“This medal might feed me for about a year or two, but if I get my education I will, basically, be fed for a lifetime,” he said. “There a bunch of things I want to do. Like I want to learn about cars. I want to learn about houses. I hope to build a house someday. I plan to do a bunch of stuff, traveling. I’d like to learn how to cook. I just want to learn about life.”
In the meantime, he will focus on his goal of winning another Olympic gold medal. He knows from experience there are no shortcuts to success.
“You have to be hungry,” he said. “You have to be passionate about what you do. You have to want it. You have to want to be the best.”
Cejudo knows what he’s talking about.