As an Olympic champion wrestler, Henry Cejudo knows what it’s like to take on the world’s best athletes one-on-one.
As a first generation Mexican-American, he knows what it’s like to go up against ignorance, xenophobia and prejudice.
He’s hoping to take down both as he returns to competition in search of a second Olympic gold medal.
At 21, Cejudo became a face of the 2008 Olympics when he won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling. He has since become not only a role model, but a powerful voice in the immigration debate as a vocal opponent of the controversial reform measures in his home state of Arizona.
While there might not appear to be obvious overlap, the two passions in his life are far from mutually exclusive.
“I came back, not just for wrestling, but to make an impact, to be a face of this whole immigration issue with Latinos,” Cejudo, now 24, said of his return to competition. “I was born in this country and competed for the United States. To be called an anchor baby, it’s ridiculous. … My goal is to win the gold medal and be that inspiration and hope and change that perception.”
The wrestler knows firsthand the impact an athlete can have. Henry Cejudo’s epiphany happened in the summer of 1996, watching the Olympics on a black-and-white television with a hanger serving as a makeshift antenna. The picture might not have been perfect, but the events unfolding on the screen shaped the then-9-year-old’s future.
“It just changed my life,” Cejudo recalled of watching U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson win an Olympic gold medal. “To see this African-American guy grab that American flag and just crying, bawling with emotion, that changed my life. I’ve always wanted to know what it felt like to be in Michael Johnson’s shoes.”
But that was only the beginning.
“It’s not so much about what I’ve done by winning the gold medal, but what can I do with it,” Cejudo said.
Born in Los Angeles, Cejudo was one of seven children raised by a single mother. His mother was also an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.
The family struggled financially, moving within the Southwest before ultimately settling in Arizona.
The family often went without, but Cejudo learned a valuable lesson, one he shares with children not too different from him: “It doesn’t cost a thing to dream.”
Of course, he tells them, it’s not just about dreaming, but hard work and sacrifice. Harder work and more sacrifice than many people are willing to put in.
Having people like Cejudo to look up to is essential for the next generation of wrestlers, said Angel Mercado, a wresting coach with Curtis High School, a program run through New York City organization Beat the Streets.
“It shows them that anybody can compete,” Mercado said. “You don’t have to be the strongest, the fastest, the smartest. You just have to have a tremendous work ethic, which you can learn by being in this sport.
"You get anybody, any background – rich or poor, black or white – and as long as they work hard, they’ll be able to compete with anybody in this sport,” Mercado added.
Cejudo officially returned to the mat in early May as part of a U.S.-Russia dual meet held in Times Square and organized by Beat the Streets. Given his commitment to mentoring, the return was fitting.
The New York City program seeks to both develop the next generation of wrestlers and offer youth a positive after-school activity. The wrestler’s support of Beat the Streets goes back three years now, and it’s just one of the outreach organizations with which he’s involved.
Cejudo knows his return to competition will be accompanied by added pressure and expectations. That’s just how it is when you’re the reigning Olympic champion.
He’s embracing the challenge and platform that being one of the world’s greatest wrestlers provides him.
“There’s 50 million Latinos in the U.S., and I want to just show the rest of the country that we’re here, and here to stay,” Cejudo said.
“I’m proud to be an American and to have Mexican heritage," he continued. "I want to give an opportunity to the next Henry Cejudo out there and to be an inspiration.”
Without question, Cejudo already is.
Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter:@BurnsOrtiz