|Henry Cejudo of the United States celebrates after defeating Shingo Matsumoto of Japan to win the gold medal in the men's 55kg freestyle wrestling event at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
(New York) – One of the most unforgettable moments of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was when 21-year-old Henry Cejudo became America’s youngest gold medalist in freestyle wrestling and ran around the ring with a US flag overhead – half exuberant and half bawling. The victory was profoundly personal. Cejudo grew up in poverty, one of six children raised single-handedly by his Mexican immigrant mother, and had been fighting all his life for what many Americans take for granted. Cejudo had never experienced a full fridge, a clean shower, or even had his own pillow until his junior year of high school when he left his hardscrabble life for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. At the time, USA Wrestling was trying to develop young talent in the Olympic styles (as opposed to folk style, which is contested in American high schools and colleges).
The move paid off, and when Cejudo brought the 55kg (121 lb.) gold medal home, his US victory lap led him into business, writing, speaking, and boxing, but he eventually realized that he couldn’t stay away from the mat.
In February, Cejudo started training full time again, and will soon move to Iowa to reunite with his 2008 coach, Terry Brands, with hopes of making his second Olympic team at age 25 and becoming the third American wrestler to win back-to-back Olympic gold (joining George Mehnert who won the 115 and 119 lb. classes at the 1904 and 1908 Games; and John Smith who won the 136.5-lb. division in 1988 and 1992).
Cejudo’s first test will be on Thursday, May 5, where he will face the 2010 junior world championship bronze medalist Rasul Mashezov in a USA-Russia dual meet in New York City’s bustling Times Square.
One day before Cejudo’s Cinco de Mayo return, the Mexican-American superstar chatted with teamusa.org at the New York Athletic Club in midtown Manhattan.
What have you been up to since 2008?
I wrote a book, “American Victory” [with Bill Plaschke]. It’s now on its third printing. Arizona State is doing a play about it. Major movie studios are interested. We did a signing tour from January to June last year. I also have my own signature shoe with Adidas called: Henry Cejudo Vaporspeed. I’ve done public speaking, wrestling clinics, and have been enjoying life for a little bit.
Have there been some financial rewards as well?
Absolutely. I bought a condo [where] a bunch of celebrities [live], like basketball players, Senator McCain. It’s in Phoenix, in the Biltmore Towers.
After the Olympics, how did you stay in shape?
I did amateur boxing for two-and-a-half years. My goal after the  Olympics was to make it this time in boxing. I picked it up so quick. I sparred with No. 2 nationally-ranked boxer Jose Benavidez. I was 3-0. I won the Copper Gloves in October 2010 in Arizona. Luckily, I worked with Jose Benavidez [Sr.], an elite coach. What made me decide to go back to wrestling was because he left Phoenix. I thought maybe I’d go to LA, but I was itching to go back to wrestling. Wrestling, to me, is a tougher sport. This year-and-a-half will be intense.
When did you re-commit to wrestling?
I committed to it in February . I feel smarter and wiser about the sport. It’s almost like you retire and see different angles, different techniques. I just feel more relaxed – even though it’s my first match back. No pressure, right? I’ll get there. I know I can.
Was it tough to make weight for this event? They have you listed as 121 lbs. (But wrestlers are allowed 11 lbs. leeway, as the USA-Russia event is a fundraiser for Beat the Streets, a nonprofit organization that provides wrestling opportunities New York City youth.)
We just had weigh-in and I was 132. I was 145 before that. The highest was 150, but it’s not like it was fat. I normally walk around at 138.
Where are you training?
I’ll be moving to Iowa soon to train with Terry Brands, the coach that brought me up at the Olympic Training Center. I’ll have training partners. In Colorado Springs, there were no training partners. I missed that.
Are you psyched about Iowa?
Have you ever been to Iowa?
Almost. Have you?
[Nods] I don’t like it. It’s too quiet. Nothing to do. I need SOME Mexicans you know. I need SOME culture.
Where is your Olympic gold medal now?
I gave it to my mom, Nelly Rico. It’s hers. It belongs to her. She’s the lady who showed me the way, who inspired me. A lady who came to America with nothing, and left with an Olympic gold-medal son. She’s the one who showed me an attitude of make no excuses. She’s a lady who committed to her family and to work. I’d never want to be in her shoes but I’ve seen [her] go through the most agonizing pain and not sleep and make sure her children were okay. What I do is a lot easier than what she did.
Were you able to help your mother financially after winning gold in Beijing?
Of course! I got her some clothes. Soon, I’m going to get her a home. After so many years, she went to Mexico City. We’re working on her [US] citizenship, and speeding up the process. On July 4, my mom and I will be speaking in Monticello, Virginia at [President Jefferson’s] home, about the immigration issue. Not everything’s bad. I don’t want to get into the politics.
Since you’ve come back to wrestling, which skills have come quickly and what needs more work technically?
My only flaw is not competing. I know I’m not going to feel the way I felt in Beijing.
What’s your competition schedule after this USA-Russia dual meet?
It’s up to my coaches. My plan is just to continue to compete this summer and just get matches, matches, matches. It’s all about qualifying the weight [class] to go to the Olympics, and eventually getting there.
Is the depth of talent in your weight class (55kg/121 lbs) deeper since 2008, or have a lot of athletes retired? In the US, you’ve got 100 competitors. I’ve never underestimated anybody. I take everybody serious. Every match is crucial. Anything can happen. I know my areas of concentration and it’ll be okay.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.