BEIJING He wrapped himself in the flag almost as though he had been born in it.
Born in the USA.
Henry Cejudo, the son of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, is a documented gold medalist, America's first in freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Olympics.
"I don't want to let it go," Cejudo said as he tugged at a flag that flew like a star-spangled cape as he raced around in tears and triumph after winning the 121-pound division Tuesday night over Japan's Tomohiro Matsunaga. "I might sleep with this.
"This is cool, coming out of a Mexican-American background. It just feels so good. Not many Americans get to do something like this. I feel like I'm living the American dream."
After years of sleeping four and five to a bed and sometimes not certain where he would sleep at all in a journey from Los Angeles to New Mexico to Phoenix and Colorado, Cejudo finally arrived at a destination, the one place, he was certain he would occupy. The medal stand's top pedestal was as much of an ambition as it was a dream. Only there would Cejudo finally be comfortable.
"I always knew I was going to be here," said Cejudo, who defeated Matsunaga with a 2-2 tiebreaker in the first period and then 3-0 in a best-of-three match after winning three bouts within about 90 minutes earlier in the day. "I watched the Olympics as a kid, and I just knew it.
"Yeah, it was tough. But, man, is it worth it."
The tough part, perhaps, was just overcoming the uncertainties of a young life with a troubled, mostly absent father and never far from streets full of more potential mayhem than meals.
"He has done an unbelievable job coming from the environment he came from," said Terry Brands, his coach at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. "He grew up in Maryvale, Ariz. He could be in prison. Could be a drug runner. Could be this, could be that. He's done an unbelievable job of not being a victim."
He has, in part because he and his brothers are sick of the questions about where and how they grew up.
"Yeah, I'm getting a little tired of it, to tell you the truth" said Angel Cejudo, a four-time Arizona high school state champion who was his brother's training partner in Beijing. "It's Phoenix. Not Compton. Not Detroit. It's not that bad. We just didn't have much."
What they had was a mom, Nelly Rico. She often worked two jobs and kept her sons in church and off the streets.
"Going to church was more important than going to wrestling practice," said Henry.
Nelly Rico wasn't in Beijing to see her 21-year-old son become the youngest American wrestler to win a freestyle gold. There had been plans for her to make the trip. Another Cejudo brother, Alonzo, and a sister, Gloria, were there. So was Frank Saenz, Henry's former high school coach who wore a black-and-gold Maryvale High School wrestling shirt and sobbed when Cejudo won by overpowering Matsunaga with three points in the second period.
They cheered so loudly and were on their feet so often during the match that Chinese security threatened to throw them out of the building.
"We didn't want that to happen," Alonzo said. "But, hey, he's your brother, man. What are you gonna do?
Henry said his mom stayed in the United States to care for Angel's child in Colorado Springs, where he and Angel have been living and training for the last few years. There were other reports from Olympic officials that she could not get into China because of passport problems. She is not a U.S. citizen.
"She is a resident," Henry said, somewhat cryptically.
Cejudo's mom is from Mexico City. She and Henry's dad, Jorge, moved as undocumented immigrants to Los Angeles, where Henry was born in 1987. His dad was in and out of California jails. When Henry was 4, his parents split. He saw his father only one more time before his dad died about 16 months ago from reported heart failure in Mexico City.
"Our mom protected us from a lot of stuff," Angel said. "She just never talked about anything bad that ever happened."
Henry wanted to go see his dad in Mexico City. But his brothers talked him out of it after hearing stories that Alonzo, still a Phoenix resident, said disgusted him.
The father is another question that gets asked repeatedly. It was there again, not long after Cejudo got his gold and heard the Star Spangled Banner.
"It's that whole victimhood thing again," Henry said. "I've moved on. My dad, he's in a better place now." On Tuesday, he only wanted to get home to see mom. Nelly Rico will get the gold medal, said Henry, who after dropping 10 pounds in less than 24 hours to make weight Monday was looking forward to some of mom's cooking.
"I just want to eat a plate of my mom's ceviche and some of that Mexican food she makes," said Cejudo, still wrapped in a flag as American as a cheeseburger.