Oh Henry! Cejudo captured America’s only gold in 2008

Updated: July 30, 2012

Freestyle wrestler Henry Cejudo showed the world — at least the millions tuned into the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing — that the proper mindset, seasoned by perseverance and years of hard work, can bring about Olympic glory.

The 21-year-old, whose mother, Kelly Rio, was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, won the 121-pound gold medal to vault him into the national media spotlight.

Henry Cejudo draped himself in the American flag after winning the only U.S. gold medal with his championship at 121 pounds. (Photo by John Sachs)

“My mom always taught us you can be whatever you want to be,” Cejudo said shortly after the American defeated Japan’s Tomohiro Matsunaga, 2-2, 3-0, in the gold-medal match before running around the Chinese Agricultural University Gymnasium with an American flag flying from his shoulder like Superman’s cape.

“I’m living the American dream right now. United States is the land of opportunity. It’s the best country in the world. I’m just glad to represent it. Coming out of a Mexican-American background, it feels good to represent the U.S. Not too many Mexicans get a chance to do that.

Cejudo chose to train full-time under the direction of Terry Brands at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs shortly after he added two Colorado state championships to a pair in Arizona titles.

“The American fighting spirit, that’s what (Cejudo) brings,” said Brands, who served as the resident coach for USA Wrestling in 2008. “He followed a plan and came to a place where he ultimately believed in himself and that’s the difference.

Unfortunately for the United States, the performance by 17 Olympians — seven in men’s freestyle, six in Greco and four in women’s freestyle — was the worst Olympic performance by the United States since 1968 … as only Greco-Roman’s 211.5-pound Adam Wheeler and women’s 138-pound Randi Miller also collected medals, both bronze.

The 27-year-old Wheeler did not start wrestling until he was a freshman in high school in Lancaster, Calif., and spent five years in the Coast Guard before represent the U.S. Navy. Wheller made the medal stand when he defeated Korea’s Tae-Young Han for the bronze medal.

“I challenged Adam earlier to become the king of our room,” said U.S. coach Steve Fraser. “I think he took the challenge serious and throughout the year trained to be the toughest guy in our room.”

Miller, who upset 2004 Olympian Sara McMann to make her first Olympic Team, defeated Canada’s World medalist Martine Degrenier, 1-0, 1-2, 1-1, in the bronze medal match.

“Anybody who wrestlers, will say, ‘There is no quitting,’ ” said Miller, who won four of five matches in Beijing. “You do not stop until the end.”

The other men’s freestyle wrestlers were 3-8 overall as only Ben Askren (1-1 at 163 pounds) and Steve Mocco at heavyweight (2-2) won matches.

Among the other Greco-Roman wrestlers, who went a combined 4-6, 2002 World heavyweight champion Dremiel Byers (2-1) was the only other American with a winning record.

In women’s freestyle, where all four competitors were first-time Olympians, all recorded wins, including Clarissa Chun, who finished fifth at 105.5 pounds with a 2-2 record. (A month later, Chun won a World championship in Tokyo. Women’s freestyle hosted a separate Worlds that year.) Meanwhile, Marcie Van Dusen (121) was 1-1 and 158-pound Ali Bernard, also split four bouts and finished fifth.