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Bring On The World
June 11, 2007
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
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June 11, 2007

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

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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 r�sum�s 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.

Jorge Cejudo--who also used the aliases Favian Roca, and Emiliano and Javier Zaragosa--was no stranger to trouble. Throughout the 1990s he moved in and out of the California penal system for a variety of offenses. His crimes cost him more than his freedom; they also cost him his family. In May 1991, on the eve of his release from jail, Nelly Rico, the woman with whom he shared a home in South Central L.A., moved with her six kids to Las Cruces, N.Mex. The four youngest of those children (one girl and three boys) were Jorge's, including the baby, four-year-old Henry. "My mom didn't want to be around my dad because of the way he was," Henry says.

The splintered family spent 2 1/2 years in New Mexico before Nelly, now 47, moved them again, to Phoenix. Often holding down two jobs, and mostly doing factory work, she struggled to make ends meet. She and her children maintained no permanent residence, sometimes staying in a house or apartment for only two months and sleeping four or more to a bed while sharing living space with other families and friends. "We were never finished packing," says Henry's older sister Gloria. "We'd move from upstairs to downstairs in the same apartment complex."

In such close quarters (another sister, Christy, arrived in 1995) tempers were often on edge, and Henry fought frequently with his brother Angel, who was older by just 16�months. It was Angel who found his way to wrestling first, and Henry soon followed, thrilled, he says, with the idea that he could "get trophies for fighting."By the time he reached Phoenix's Maryvale High, he and Angel were dominating local competition. "Every time they left to go to a tournament, Mom ingrained in them that the way we lived should be a motivation to them," says Gloria. "She said that how [little] we had had nothing to do with who they were. They took that onto the mat with them. They still do."

Angel was the star back then, graduating from Maryvale in 2004 with four state championships and a career record of 150-0. He had scholarship offers from several college programs but no desire to continue going to school. When Dave Bennett, the national developmental freestyle coach for USA Wrestling, offered him a chance to join the resident freestyle program in Colorado Springs, he jumped at the opportunity. Bennett says that while he was arranging for Angel's arrival, somebody from Phoenix--he doesn't remember who--asked if Henry, then 17, could come along too. "And I thought, I like that idea," says Bennett.

Henry, who'd just won his second straight Arizona state championship, was already on the radar in Colorado Springs. He had spent several weeks early in the summer of 2004 training at the OTC with Patricia Miranda, who was a couple months away from winning Olympic bronze at 106 pounds in Athens in women's freestyle. She had first met Cejudo on a trip to Phoenix, during a training session at a local high school. "He kept taking me down," says Miranda. "He moved so well from position to position. Once we found out how well he challenged me, we wanted to include him in my every-day training."

When the Cejudo boys began their residency at the OTC at the start of the school year, they were assigned to separate dorm rooms and slept in their own beds for the first time in their lives. But wrestling remained at the center of their worlds. Henry couldn't get enough of the program, rising before 6 a.m. for individual workouts with resident freestyle coach Terry Brands, then running or biking to classes five miles away at Coronado High. After school he would return for freestyle practice. He also found time to wrestle for Coronado, winning two Colorado state championships to go along with his pair from Arizona. Angel, despite some initial success, has not fared as well. He is still in the residency program but has struggled with his weight (he wrestles in the 132-pound class), as well as with the demands of raising a two-year-old daughter with his girlfriend, Angela. "He's trying to balance where he's at in life," says Bennett.

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