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Bring On the World

The son of former illegal immigrants, 20-year-old Henry Cejudo has overcome hardship to become the youngest U.S. wrestling champion in decades. Now he wants to be the best on the planet

Posted: Tuesday June 5, 2007 2:13PM; Updated: Tuesday June 5, 2007 2:13PM
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Cejudo, who won his first senior national title last year as a a high schooler, beat Nick Simmons in April to repeat as champ.
Cejudo, who won his first senior national title last year as a a high schooler, beat Nick Simmons in April to repeat as champ.
Peter Read Miller/SI
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By Mark Beech

The long, low-slung wrestling room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is not a welcoming space. There are no windows or air conditioning. Sweat streaks not only the mats but also the padding on the walls. During a typical two-hour practice session for the men's freestyle team, when the activity of roughly 30 wrestlers pushes the temperature well over 80°, the atmosphere gets downright ripe. The only sounds, besides the commands of coaches, are the grunts of combatants, the thuds of falling bodies and the occasional yelps of pain. It is a room in which the weak don't stand a chance.

In a far corner Henry Cejudo is hard at work. The reigning national champion at 121 pounds (he won his second straight title in Las Vegas in April) and a resident athlete at the OTC since the fall of 2004, he has thrived in an environment that has broken wrestlers with sparkling résumés from some of the best college programs in the country. He punctuates every grueling practice by lifting weights or running a quick three or four miles around nearby Memorial Park afterward. Cejudo, who was born in Los Angeles to then illegal immigrants from Mexico City who met in the U.S., is the toughest wrestler in the room. He's also, by his sport's standards, just a boy -- a few months past his 20th ­birthday -- and the youngest member of the U.S. national team. Last year he lost in the finals of the world team trials to 36-year-old world bronze medalist Sammie Henson, who ­remains his top rival for a spot on the 2008 Olympic squad.

Cejudo (pronounced say-HOO-doh) is a prodigy of the sort rarely found in the U.S. freestyle program, which typically ­doesn't get its hands on wrestlers until they've completed their college careers. He burst onto the international scene in November 2005 while still a senior in high school, winning the New York Athletic Club Holiday International after defeating '04 NCAA champion Jason Powell of Nebraska in the quarterfinals and dominating junior world champion Besik Kudukhov of Russia in the semis. Five months later Cejudo became the first high schooler to win a senior national championship since USA Wrestling became the sport's governing body in 1983. "He is the future of wrestling," says U.S. freestyle head coach Kevin Jackson. "He's going to win a lot of world and Olympic titles for us and for himself. We expect him to wrestle until 2012 or 2016 and dominate the world."

That would be fine with Cejudo, who will be the No. 1 seed in his weight class this weekend at the world team trials in Las Vegas. Henson has missed time with a knee injury, leaving a hole in the weight division that only Cejudo seems ready to fill. At 5' 4", he is a compact mass of muscle and focused aggression. Since he began wrestling in junior high, he has thought of little else but winning world and Olympic championships. Indeed, he is obsessed with those goals, driven by a desire to prove himself to the world, as well as to a father he never really knew.

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