Get to know former Maryvale High School wrestler and Olympic Gold Medalist Henry Cejudo as he talks about his new autobiography, “American Victory: Wrestling, Dreams, and a Journey Toward Home.”
José Cárdenas: Tonight, a conversation with valley wrestler Henry Cejudo about his journey and lifelong dream of winning Olympic gold. His inspirational story coming up next on "Horizonte."
Funding for "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions by the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station.
José Cárdenas: Good evening, everyone, and thank you for joining us.
José Cárdenas: Henry Cejudo began his wrestling career here in the valley and went on to become the youngest Olympic gold-winner in U.S. wrestling history. Cejudo tells his powerful story in his autobiography, "American Victory," detailing the determination of a son of undocumented Mexican immigrants who, against all odds, achieved his dream of becoming an Olympic champion. Join me as we get to know Olympic gold medal-winner Henry Cejudo. Henry, it's an honor to have you on our show. Welcome back to Phoenix. I know -- it's good to have you here. Your story is a powerful one and a tough family life. We have a picture of you with your family that we want to show. The youngest of six children.
Henry Cejudo: Actually of seven.
José Cárdenas:. And this is a picture of you with your mom, who played an important role in your life. She was the one who supported the family principally as you were growing up.
Henry Cejudo: Absolutely, my father was never around. My mom, she did everything. She had to play both roles and did a great job raising seven kids. I don't know how she did it but she did it.
José Cárdenas: And both of your parents came here from Mexico.
Henry Cejudo: Yes, both came illegally, sadly to say, but came to this great country for a better life. They came over 30 years ago and landed in south central L.A. where I was born and my six siblings were as well.
José Cárdenas: You said your father wasn't around and yet he plays a prominent role in the beginning chapters of your book. We have a picture of you with him that we want to show. But you talked about the demons that affected him. There are you the blonde hair that you mentioned in the book, but you had kind of a love-hate relationship with your father?
Henry Cejudo : As a kid, a little boy, you can see I had blond hair. He's your dad. At that age, he's a guy that you look up to, that you want to be like. And but, you know, as -- you know, and the book talks about this, he went to prison and started doing drugs and abusive to my mother. I started finding that out as you get older, you start to understand why things happen the way they do. There was a love-hate and toward the end, I loved and wanted to get to meet my dad and unfortunately, I had the opportunity to not to, because he passed away.
José Cárdenas: This was shortly before you won the Olympic gold. I want to talk about that. Growing up, while it wasn't perhaps the best relationship the two of you had, he was proud of you and referred to you as his champion.
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, it was always -- we always used to bond as a kid. The memories I have of him picking me up and always being very loving to me. And unfortunately, I didn't get to experience that the last 15 years of my life but it is what it is, and I don't hold anything against him. He was never around, never taught me how to drive a car or dress or how to act in front of women. But luckily to have people in my book that played good roles and I tell everybody, I didn't have my biological father, but I had people who played that role. 30 dads.
José Cárdenas: From your real father you seem to have developed a toughness. You talk about fighting for money, even as a young boy. Tell us about that.
Henry Cejudo: I look, I resemble, just like him. Growing up as a kid, the way we used to make money in our neighborhood, we used to fight for money for ice creams. A bunch of drunk Mexican guys would get together and used to make us fight. And if you came out victorious, you won a nice cold Mexican ice cream. But if you lost, you went home bitter with two black eyes and that's the way it was. That was before we started wrestling so we kind of already had a good tough background and it was an easy transition to wrestling, I think that's why I fell in love with it. It is an organized sport and we'd get trophies and medals and my mom was ok with it. It was basically human cock fights for little kids, it got competitive.
José Cárdenas: You mentioned your mother was the first to introduce you to wrestling by getting you a hulk Hogan wrestling figure.
Henry Cejudo: We were fanatics of the WWF at that time. And she encouraged us. You know. Whatever we loved, whatever we liked, my mom pushed us. You guys can be the best at it. In a way, she had this inspiration, even though she never had it coming to America and working -- you know, trying to live the American dream but being slapped down with two jobs and seven kids and as little kids, she said you can become anything you want to here in America. And there's a reason why it's called American victory, it's my mom coming over and having a dream and accomplishing one of the few dreams that I had.
José Cárdenas: Pretty tough odds. You mentioned in the book, having to leave Los Angeles because your father was coming out of prison and something you found out later, had threatened to kill his kids.
Henry Cejudo: Absolutely. Again, because the whole book, it's a whole family effort and there's things I found out, like you said, I knew we left California to leave him, after him -- to leave him, before he got released from prison, but I had no idea he was really trying to kill us. And the book gets personal like that. And it's a very touchy, very personal book. The book will make you laugh, will make you cry and hopefully inspire you, but there's a lot of things I found out. Like wow, I still shake from.
José Cárdenas: You went from Los Angeles to New Mexico and in the book, you say that's where you first found out what homelessness was about.
Henry Cejudo: Absolutely, in Los Angeles, you can say you're a ghetto, you had your dad who would work and bring change in and New Mexico, it was like, once we started to leave Los Angeles, we came to New Mexico, Las Cruses and came to New Mexico, got on the greyhound and literally homeless for a few hours until my mom had the courage to call the pastor of a church to pick us up and give us a place to stay, which he did. And it worked out. My mom found a job picking Chiles and she worked multiple jobs out there to make ends meet and we made the best out of it.
José Cárdenas: The best out of a pretty grim situation, you talk about living in a crack house. There was a lot of drug use around you, and other things going on
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, we lived in a studio at the time, literally, a crack house, literally. It was Chinese -- my mom, somehow figured it out, and we all bundled up in there. There was six of us and uncles from Mexico came. And that was another three, plus my mom, it was just -- I mean, it was just a big party at the house. And as you bring uncles from different -- different -- from a different country, it's like you know, they bring different people, they're young at the time and see things as a little kid you wouldn't want to see.
José Cárdenas: Probably shouldn't have seen.
Henry Cejudo: Yeah.
José Cárdenas: Your procedure brought you to Phoenix when you were about 12 or so? You were starting sixth grade.
Henry Cejudo: No, I came to Phoenix when I was eight.
José Cárdenas: Your mom had a sister here?
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, she had a sister and New Mexico, the think the whole situation in New Mexico wasn't right. We had a uncle who kept getting picked up by immigration. My mom was a resident but scared to get picked up herself.
José Cárdenas: By this time, she had obtained legal residence.
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, the 1987 amnesty law. But she couldn't risk getting caught and leaving seven kids behind. It was just us and my uncles and cousins got caught and sent back. My mom feared for her life and so we had to leave Phoenix and go with an aunt and, which became better.
José Cárdenas: And it was in Phoenix that you had your first official wrestling match?
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, first official match, but it started off as a dream, watching the Olympics in 1996. At the time, we lived in an trailer at that time. And I remember watching the Olympics on a black and white TV with wooden panels on the side and I remember to today, it still gives me the goosebumps, watching Jackson winning -- an African-American guy, I don't know how or when, but I thought, I'm going to go to the Olympics and represent the United States and bring back the gold medal. Started off watching the Olympics on TV and that's how it started.
José Cárdenas: You referred earlier to the other men in your life who were additional fathers, so to speak. Some pretty important people for you. One of them Tracy Greif.
Henry Cejudo: A guy who took me under his wing when I was in Phoenix.
José Cárdenas: I think we have a picture of him as well that we'd like to show. The USA Olympics.
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, you can see my bandana, still -- not necessarily a thug or villain, but the style. That's on the west side of Phoenix.
José Cárdenas: And other people important your life. Frank Sines was a wrestling coach?
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, out of Phoenix. He is a guy who deserves a book, a movie. Who got a bunch of ghetto kids together and made them champions out of them. I mean including the best in the world. He sacrificed his family and himself. And he -- I mean, this guy deserves a story. This guy developed over 12 state champions and I think nine years, so he's done an incredible job.
José Cárdenas: And other people who featured prominently, included Kevin Jackson, Patricia Miranda.
Henry Cejudo: These are people, I know wrestling is an individual sport, but people have taken a great role in my life and successful. A family who took me home, you know, who took me into their family because I left home at the age of 16.
José Cárdenas: This was when you went to Colorado Springs?
Henry Cejudo: Yes, I had met Patricia Miranda through a coach and in Colorado Springs for about a month and this kid is crazy. Anybody who can stay in Colorado springs for a month and train eight to nine hours a day is something special.
José Cárdenas: And that's the reason you went there.
Henry Cejudo: To train with her. This is a kid who went to Colorado Springs to train with a woman. I ended up going to nationals and got a phone call, why don't you come out here and become a resident, and see what we can do in four years and I left my family, my friends and left very, very good Mexican food to chase this dream. There's no good cooking like Mom's.
José Cárdenas: And you mentioned something you did find there and it's a light moment, pretty significant. The first time you had your own pillow.
Henry Cejudo: The first time I had my own pillow and bed. I even had a sink in my room. I couldn't believe it, to be honest with you. I couldn't believe this is given to me. Hard work has finally paid off. It felt weird at first, it felt so weird I went to my brother's room and actually slept with him that night. Like my -- my own bed with a mint on it, I thought, wow. This is something.
José Cárdenas: After coming from a situation where you had six or seven people in one bedroom.
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, sleeping on the floor my whole life. Sometimes two to three, four, at times, depending on how small you were in a bed. To me, I was just -- that's when I knew I was like -- wow, this is luxury.
José Cárdenas: So wrestling was your ticket out of that kind of poverty. Let's talk about your wrestling career. You had a tendency to come from behind in your matches to win them.
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, I tend to get people on their toes when wrestling and I was ranked 31st in the world. I had a bad 2007 world champions, and there's only 16 weight classes that qualify to go to the Olympics so I had to qualify to get to the Olympics. And nobody had heard of me. Any of those guys and I think they overlooked me. An American kid, 21 years old, and come in here and they overlooked me. The first match, I had the world champion. Drawing the world champion the first match.
José Cárdenas: And this is part of the national championship or Beijing?
Henry Cejudo: This is Beijing. Making the Olympic team I had this guy first round, world champion. And I had to go -- I was actually losing and came from behind and won the second match, against a Georgian, the same thing, and third match, the same thing. So I just looked at it, you know what? I've sacrificed too much. I left home at an early age and I'm throwing it all out there. I came from behind and just looked at it, we came from behind as a family our whole life. It's the same with wrestling.
José Cárdenas: And you mentioned your relative youth as compared to other American wrestlers, but other countries that wouldn't have been that unusual.
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, I think in America, we have a style called folk style wrestling. It's like or national style which is very, very popular and across the world, there's a style called free style. Which is Olympic-style. And completely different rules and that's what hurting America and hurts you go to bring -- hurting us to bring medals in the games because of the styles and there could be a whole book in the differences of styles.
José Cárdenas: And part of what's going on as you're moving from the national championship and qualifying for the Olympics and then Beijing is family issues, including your father. You made reference before to his passing way. This is -- what? -- 2007?
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, 2007. My father -- it's a story. I mean, I -- I actually, my mentor, the guy who took me in, really treated me, he was like the guy I called the -- the guy I call today "dad." Took me under his wings and showed me the ropes and taught me how to drive, bought me my first suit, things that a normal father would do and I was curious that year, 2007, I wonder what my real dad is like. And I had planned a trip after winning nationals to go to Mexico and see him and I was convinced by my family not to. They were afraid that seeing him was going to bring me back and not have me concentrate for the Olympic games so they convinced me not to. Take a family trip, or supposedly, and never happened and we get a phone call a month later, your dad passed away. This is May of '07. And never had a chance to see him. Never had a chance to hear his voice and how he is. It's a bummer.
José Cárdenas: You were thinking about him the day of your final Olympic match and I want to talk about that day. What was going through your head?
Henry Cejudo: No, I think -- honestly, I thought about everybody. First and foremost, I thought about my mother, this lady who came to America and done everything possible for this country and what she's told us and what we've been through.
José Cárdenas: And she wasn't there because even though she was a legal resident, she didn't have a U.S. passport?
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, so I'm here going against the world and mom is over here watching on the internet. But I thought about my father and brothers and everybody who's been there for me and said, you know, we won this gold medal together. It wasn't just me.
José Cárdenas: We have pictures from that day. I know we have a picture from the match itself as it was occurring on that day and we want to show it. Tell us about what's going on here.
Henry Cejudo: Well, here, I actually took a single leg shot. I was so focused and ready to wrestle that I just came out firing. I said my dream is too good to take second. I said my dream is too perfect, I --
José Cárdenas: And is this the end of the match?
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, this is the end of the match. I'm tearing up. I never felt joy in my life. I've heard people talk about joy and I think that's the closest and the greatest feeling in the world.
José Cárdenas: And running with the flag.
Henry Cejudo: there's no other flag I would carry like that, America is the best place in the world and I'm glad I represent it.
José Cárdenas: And a picture right that have or around that time is what's on your book. I think we've got a close-up we can get of the book. The picture on the cover is you with the flag. Behind you, kneeling at the edge of the mat.
Henry Cejudo: Uh-huh, yeah, absolutely. Again, that's just my body, my mind, everything just took over. I was in -- on another planet. Wow.
José Cárdenas: Right there, American victory, and you emphasized at the beginning of our interview and talking off-set, how important it was for you, despite the experiences that you had with immigration and your family did, and your mother and father, to emphasize this was an American victory. Why is that?
Henry Cejudo: It is, it's an American dream. The story, you can't beat a kid who -- the son of Mexican immigrants who grew up in poverty and can still accomplish a dream and goals of becoming whatever he wants to become. In my case, a gold medalist.
José Cárdenas: Speaking of the gold medal, we saw a picture of it with you but you've got it here.
Henry Cejudo: It's in my drawer for now. A lot of people ask me where I put it. But it's in my drawer. I presented it to my mother here in Phoenix. I am from Phoenix, even though I've lived everywhere. I'm a hometown boy. But it's -- you know, it's something special and I gave it to my mom in front of her family and friends and told her, she needs me to borrow it in 2012.
José Cárdenas: Here's a picture of you with your mom.
Henry Cejudo: Yeah, that's my mom.
José Cárdenas: You comment on the fact that this moment of great accomplishment, great joy and yet when back in Phoenix, your comments on the radio about your mother and how she should be deported? How did that make you feel?
Henry Cejudo: It got me mad. I represented this country and she's done a great job with her kids and there are still people who are negative. My mom always told us, you know what? There's negativity when you lose and there's negativity when you win. Regardless, there's always negativity. But she loves it. She travels more than I do.
José Cárdenas: You've been traveling a lot. Your life changed considerably since the win. You got an endorsement relationship with a shoe company.
Henry Cejudo: Uh-huh.
José Cárdenas: Filmed a commercial. We may have a clip of that and then also a shoe that -- it's now the number one selling wrestling shoe.
Henry Cejudo: We sold over 25,000 wrestling shoes and it's No. 1. This is a kid who grew up without shoes and you fast forward time and now I have a signature shoe with Adidas.
José Cárdenas: We're going to show the commercial that's focused on this shoe.
Voiceover: There are 1,440 minutes in a day. 480 minutes charging, 15 minutes lifting. 20 minutes sprawls. 65 minutes of weakness leaving the body. 115 losing the last eight pounds. Four minutes of mind over matter. 37 minutes thinking, preparing, waiting. There are 1,440 minutes in a day. Only six of them matter.
José Cárdenas: And there, again is the shoe that was featured there. You've also been traveling, not only promoting your book, and you got 10 book signings yet to do?
Henry Cejudo: Don't remind me, my back hurts.
José Cárdenas: And the shoe, of course, but you've been doing some inspirational speaking all over the country.
Henry Cejudo: Absolutely. I get a chance to head to New York City tomorrow to speak to a program called beat the streets, about inner city kids in New York City who don't have much and we're donating over 100 books to that cause. And it's great. Again, I'm super -- it's been great. I grew up humble and I get a chance to -- three months ago I was with the president of the United States at his house drinking root beer. I had a chance to meet Oprah Winfrey and Jay Leno. And I tell people, winning this gold medal isn't what makes me great. It's what I can do with this gold medal is what is going to make me a better person. And a good role model. I think my next goal is to get my education and give back to the -- to the future, the kids.
José Cárdenas: And thank you so much for joining us on "Horizonte." Congratulations on your success and we wish you much more.
Henry Cejudo: Thank you. I love PBS. I continue to watch it.
José Cárdenas: Thanks for the endorsement.
In this segment:
Henry Cejudo:Olympic Gold Medalist;
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