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Olympic gold lets us all to get wrapped in the flag

By Mike Finn, WIN Editor

One of the things I really like about the Summer Olympics is that they occur during a United States presidential election year.

In other words, during a two-week period at a time when politicians try to separate Americans, those same citizens are united under one flag … especially when American athletes capture gold medals at the Games and celebrate by wrapping themselves under their country’s flag.

One of those moments came for me in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where Henry Cejudo — then at the age of 21 — became the youngest American wrestler to capture a gold medal in freestyle at 121 pounds on Aug. 19, 2008.

photos for finn column

Then shortly after Cejudo defeated Tomihiro Matsunaga of Japan for the championship, one of his friends, Eric Albarracin, then a captain in the U.S. Army wrapped up an American flag in a rubber band and tossed the flag about 300 feet from his seat at the Chinese Agricultural University Gymnasium to Cejudo’s corner of the mat. Coach Terry Brands picked up the flag, unwrapped it and handed it to Cejudo, who proudly displayed his American pride by running around the mat by either lifting the flag over his head or resting it on his shoulders.

“It was almost like you are carrying the nation on your back,” recalled Cejudo. “There was pride, joy, an almost indescribable feeling because of the red, white and blue, not just the stars and stripes. It’s what this country stands for. It’s about what our country has done, the blood and tears that our soldiers have given for us. It’s why this country is free.”

My memories of the Olympics go back to 1964 and I’ve always loved the aspect of what the event means. But it wasn’t until I was in Beijing to witness Cejudo’s joy that I truly understood what winning a gold medal means.

All one has to do is ready Cejudo’s book, “American Victory,” to understand how tough this young wrestler’s life was growing up in many homes in California, New Mexico and Arizona with seven siblings, without a father and with a mother, Nelly Rio, who was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico City.

The flag that Henry displayed in Beijing currently resides at his mother’s home and he takes more pride in the flag than the medal he eventually received.

“Holding the flag meant more (than the medal),” Henry said. “After you receive the medal, it’s just a medal. But the excitement of you winning, getting your hand raised and carrying the flag was a little more special than the medal.”

Cejudo, now a UFC fighter living in Phoenix, Ariz., said he almost forgets that he is a gold-medal winner. But he still can’t forget what it felt like to feel the flag in his hands and on his shoulders.

“It felt like a pair of wings,” Cejudo said. “I felt like I could fly after I finally did win the gold medal.”

There used to be a time when American gold medals did not quickly display their country’s pride. I remember both boxer George Foreman (in 1968) and decathlete Bruce Jenner (1976) holding a small American flag as they celebrated their Olympic championships.

Most people believe the idea of Olympic champs wrapping themselves in the flag goes back to hockey goalie Jim Craig adorning the American flag after he and a group of young — and truly amateur — athletes created the “Miracle on Ice” when they stunned the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

Nowadays, nearly every athlete from every country displays their country’s flag after winning gold medals. At the same Olympics, where Cejudo captured the United States’ only gold medal in wrestling eight years ago, Russia’s Bouvaissa Saitiev, a nine-time World/Olympic champion, first wore the Russian flag in celebration, then left the flag in the center of the mat to signify his retirement from the sport.

At the 2015 World Championships last September in Las Vegas, nearly all the champions — and even some bronze medalists — showed off their patriotic colors after winning their final matches.

That included America’s four gold medalists, Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Snyder in men’s freestyle and women’s freestyle champions Helen Maroulis and Adeline Gray.

Snyder, who became the youngest American to capture World gold at the then-age of 19, said he could not believe his success until he felt the flag literally covering every bit of his 213-pound body after his celebration sent him to his knees.

“It’s kind of hard to describe what it felt like, but once I wrapped the American flag around my body I definitely got goose bumps and chills,” said Snyder last fall. “I had never felt like that before. Once you feel something like that, you definitely want to experience that again.”

And now Snyder has a good chance of winning an Olympic gold medal in Rio on Aug. 21. That will also allow the Maryland native to break Cejudo’s record as the youngest American wrestler to capture an Olympic championship.

“I think Kyle is going to win a gold medal,” said Cejudo, who will be in Rio for the Games. “At least I can say I held the record for eight years.”

Cejudo, like everyone, knows that records are made to be broken.

But we all have to remember that these Olympic championships let us all wrap ourselves in the colors of red, white and blue.

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