BEIJING - Henry Cejudo, the 21-year-old prodigy who had competed in only one world-level senior tournament before Beijing, won the gold medal Tuesday at Olympic freestyle 55-kilogram wrestling.
Cejudo, crying the moment the match ended and wrapping himself in an American flag, defeated Tomohiro Matsunaga of Japan 2-2 on tiebreaker and 3-0 in the best-of-three match. Cejudo, who attended Maryvale High School in Phoenix, was 31st in last year's world championships, his only prior tournament at this level.
Cejudo, the son of undocumented Mexican immigrants who bypassed a college career to try to become an Olympian, assures of the United States of winning a freestyle wrestling gold for the ninth consecutive Olympics at which it has competed.
The bronze medalists were last year's world champion, Besik Kudukhov of Russia, and Radoslav Velikov of Bulgaria. Kudukhov was pinned by Matsunaga in the semifinals.
Two years after U.S. coach Kevin Jackson called him the future of wrestling, the future became the present in a dazzling four-match flurry, making Cejudo the youngest American to win an Olympic wrestling gold medal.
None of the other 49 did it the way he did.
"I always knew I was going to be here," Cejudo said, his blackened right eye a contrast to the gold medal he clutched ever-so-tight. "I watched the Olympics as a kid and I knew I'd be here. It was tough. But it's all worth it."
The tears that fell moments after he defeated Matsunaga gave way to a smile as wide as a wrestling mat, as he realized what he had done it. And, too, how he had done it.
American wrestlers are supposed to go to college, then enter the Olympic program when they're experienced and ready; Cejudo did so at age 17 and is the only wrestler to win a national senior championship before leaving high school.
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On his day of days, Cejudo all but gave away periods, gambling he'd have enough energy to wear down his opponents in the last two periods, admittedly causing Jackson moments of panic.
"I'm kind of unorthodox," Cejudo said.
The whiz kid won because he was every bit a wizard against wrestlers older and more wizened. His success story is the kind that seems hackneyed and a cliche, at least until it happens with the Olympics as a backdrop.
"This proves that whatever you want to do as an American, you can do it," Cejudo said.
His parents were undocumented Mexicans who met in Los Angeles. His mother had six kids, four with his father, Jorge, who was in and out of prison until dying of heart problems at age 44 last year. Henry never saw him after age 4.
The family was miserably poor, sometimes moving from apartment to apartment under the cover of night because they lacked rent money. His mom worked several jobs at a time, stealing home for a few hours to make sure her family wasn't in trouble.
Sometimes they stayed with friends, sometimes with relatives, sleeping six or seven to a room in bad neighborhoods, drug deals going on down the street. Always, though, someone was there to offer a helping hand.
Henry and older brother Angel emulated the pro wrestlers they saw on TV and the Mexican boxers they revered, and they entered a youth wrestling program in Phoenix. Angel was the first ace, winning four high school state titles at Maryvale, and Henry did the same.
Neither liked studying, so when Angel was invited to the Olympic training center, Henry tagged along and won his last two state titles while living there. Within a year, younger brother was the rising star.
But winning an Olympics so soon, with so little world-level experience, almost never happens. Cael Sanderson was the only U.S. freestyle gold medalist in Athens, but he had a long and storied amateur career and was a four-time unbeaten NCAA champion.
Cejudo's first match was a tipoff of what was to come as he defeated Velikov 0-1, 3-2, 4-3, his first victory on the world level.
Cejudo then beat Besarion Gochashvili of Georgia 1-3, 3-2, 3-0, using single-leg takedowns to get the deciding points in each of the final two periods. He again lost the first period in the semifinals, but rallied to beat Namig Sevdimov of Azerbaijan 3-5, 3-2, 4-3, on another single-leg takedown.
Matsunaga helped by pinning Kudukhov in a major upset, and the Japanese wrestler appeared to lose his edge against Cejudo and didn't wrestle nearly as well.
Several of Cejudo's brothers and sisters were there to watch it, including Angel, who, Cejudo said, "Made it tough on me, with a few knuckle sandwiches along the way. But he's the reason I'm here. We won this gold together."
Their mom, Nelly Rico, didn't make the long trip but, Henry said, will get the gold medal that he planned to sleep with Tuesday night.
"I'm not letting go of this," he said, holding it up proudly. "It's beautiful."
His story produced the 125th Olympic wrestling medal for the United States and its 50th gold. Only swimming and track and field, with far more events, have produced more American golds.
"I'm proud of my Mexican heritage," Cejudo said. "But I'm an American. It's the best country in the world. They call it the land of opportunity, and it is. Maybe if some other kid watches this, he can do the same."
The bronze medalists were last year's world champion, Kudukhov, and Radoslav Velikov of Bulgaria.