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Ed Wray, Associated Press
USA's Henry Cejudo, left, wrestles Japan's Tomohiro Matsunaga during their 55 kilogram freestyle gold medal match. Cejudo won the gold.

BEIJING — Hours after stunning the wrestling world, Henry Cejudo keeps the Olympic gold medal hanging around his neck, reaching for it constantly.

"I always saw myself with the gold medal, I really did," Cejudo said.

Soon, the person who will have the medal is Nelly Rico, a 50-year-old Mexican who arrived in the United States illegally some three decades ago. Rico is Cejudo's mother, a single parent who toiled on assembly lines and worked two jobs at a time to raise her seven children, with a strict but loving manner.

"We call her 'the terminator' back home. She's been a father and a mother. She's such a tough lady," Cejudo said.

At the Olympics, it's been the 21-year-old Cejudo who's been tough. Tuesday, the youngest U.S. wrestling champion in decades took the motivation earned during his hardscrabble youth and aimed it at Tomohiro Matsunaga, a Japanese, winning 2-0 (2-2, 3-0) to take the gold medal in the 55 kilogram weight class of freestyle wrestling.

A tearful Cejudo draped the U.S. flag around his shoulders, racing around the mat at the China Agricultural University Gymnasium. One of his coaches grabbed him in a huge bear hug. His older brother and wrestling partner, Angel, watched with tears streaming down his cheeks.

They quickly made a phone call to their mother at her home in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"She's so proud. She's so happy. She's probably not going to be able to sleep tonight," Cejudo said.

"I wish she was here," he said. "She has done so much for us I wish I could just give her the medal right now because that's who it is going to go to."

Cejudo's story is enough to melt any heart that understands the toil immigrants endure to build a life in the United States, often at risk of arrest or seeing their children fall into trouble.

Cejudo's mother and his father, Jorge Cejudo, came separately from Mexico without papers and met in Los Angeles. The father was an invisible presence, in and out of jail for petty crimes. Nelly Rico fled their home in rough South Central Los Angeles with the children in 1991 to escape him and his troubles.

They moved first to Las Cruces, N.M., where they squeezed into a three-room house, four siblings sleeping in a bunk bed made for two people, recalled a 28-year-old half-brother, Alonzo Cruz. Later, they moved on to Phoenix, where Henry and his next older brother, Angel, became wrestling stars.

Compact at 5-foot-4 but rippled with muscle, Henry Cejudo started rolling up the wrestling titles, becoming a four-time state champion in high school.

His rise to the Olympic medal stand was unconventional. Rather than going to college, he followed his brother Angel to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, finishing high school in that city in 2006 and competing in wrestling competitions in Azerbaijan, El Salvador, Brazil and Russia. He attracted attention. In June 2007, Sports Illustrated did a four-page feature on him.

Ask Cejudo or his siblings how he rose up so fast in the wrestling world, and the answer generally comes back to the determination and grit instilled by Nelly Rico, an immigrant who clung to the church as her pillar.

"We didn't have a choice whether we went to church or not. ... One time, she took me there without my T-shirt. She would always have that God factor in our lives," said Alonzo Cruz.

Rico wouldn't come herself to watch her son's Olympic matches because she couldn't endure seeing him on the wrestling mat.

"Emotionally, she couldn't handle it," Cruz said. "She gets nauseous. Half the time, she's in the bathroom getting sick."

Cejudo retains strong connections to his Mexican heritage, listing his favorite food as Mexican and his favorite musicians as the Mexican rock group Mana and the Latin pop singer Jaci Velasquez.

"I go to Mexico quite a bit," he said. "It's cool. That's your bloodline. I don't forget."

Terry Brands, the resident head freestyle wrestling coach at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, described the young wrestler as headstrong but willing to listen to advice.

"We've butted heads. He's a young man. He's matured," Brands said. "He wanted to do things his own way. We didn't see eye-to-eye sometimes."

But in the end, Cejudo has proven to be "close to perfect" as a wrestler, Brands said.

His determination is evident. Only a few days ago, Cejudo weighed in at 10 pounds over the weight limit. Asked how he lost weight so quickly, he said riding a stationary bicycle, sitting in the sauna and jumping rope.

Cruz, a U.S. flag draped around his neck at an evening press conference, said Cejudo's victory contains a moral for any immigrant son who grows up in tough environments in the United States.

"The message is, 'stay legal,"' Cruz said. "What I mean by that is, don't go stupid and go crime. I think it shows that even a minority can come up the right way."