Published December 12, 2016
Four years ago, at the Beijing Olympics, Henry Cejudo became the youngest American to win a wrestling gold medal. But his celebration was not complete. The Mexican American could not have his undocumented mother in the stands watching him win because of her immigration status. So Cejudo, who became a Latino and immigrant hero, wanted to do it all again, in the London Olympics in June, with his mother present in the stands.
But the dream was not to be.
Cejudo's comeback bid ended with a loss in the semifinals of the U.S. Olympic trials Sunday. Cejudo, the freestyle champion in Beijing four years ago at 55 kilograms, fell to top-seeded Nick Simmons 3-0, 5-9, 5-2.
The 25-year-old Cejudo removed his shoes after the loss — symbolic of a wrestler retiring — and flung them into the crowd in Iowa City.
"I can honestly say I'm sad. But at the same time, I gave it my all," Cejudo said. "I wasn't meant to be an Olympic champion. ... For me, it was to use that platform to share my story and to give back. And ultimately, I'm full of peace. I'm full of joy."
Cejudo, a native of Phoenix, grew up in poverty as one of six children. His mother, Nelly Rico, is an immigrant from Mexico. Cejudo shot to fame by becoming the only American wrestler to win gold in the Beijing Games, though his mother couldn't go to China because of her citizenship status.
Cejudo stepped away from the sport for three years to write a book, fulfill speaking engagements and speak out on immigration issues. Though Cejudo eventually returned to the mat, he competed in only a few tournaments before entering the trials.
Cejudo survived a tough first-round match Sunday against up-and-comer Earl Hall. Cejudo then dispatched fifth-seeded Obe Blanc in two periods to set up a matchup with Simmons, who finished fifth at last year's world championships.
Cejudo rallied from losing the first period with a rousing attack in the second, but the seasoned Simmons put him away in the final two minutes.
Cejudo received a standing ovation from the close to 14,000 in attendance in Iowa City, and he thanked them by tossing his shoes their way.
"I'm not going to say goodbye to the sport of wrestling. Now, I'm done competing, but if anything I'm going to say hello. I'm going to help these guys. I'm going to help this team," Cejudo said.
Cejudo essentially ruled out a coaching career in either high school or college, adding that he's invested in real estate and other businesses and should be set financially.
Cejudo won't get to retire by flinging his shoes into a crowd that included his mother at the ExCel Centre in London this summer. But he joked that Nelly likely won't be too broken up about that.
"I think she wanted me to retire anyway. She doesn't like me wrestling," Cejudo said. "She's a sweet lady. To be honest with you, she'd rather have us preaching."
This story is based on The Associated Press reporting.