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Oh Henry! High school star Cejudo on a roll after winning U.S. Nationals



It was Saturday night in Las Vegas, the bright lights were shining seemingly everywhere and Henry Cejudo had just won the U.S. Nationals for the first time.

It was time to celebrate. Well, sort of.

Cejudo went out for a big Italian dinner and later planned to walk "The Strip" down Las Vegas Boulevard. But he never made it there. He was too tired. He went back to his hotel room after dinner and crashed.

It's easy to forget sometimes this kid isn't used to staying up very late. He's still in high school.

The senior from Coronado High School in Colorado Springs is the one causing his older opponents the sleepless nights as his rapid and amazing ascent up the Senior ladder in freestyle wrestling continues.

Cejudo's latest breakthrough came when he emerged from being the No. 3 seed to win the U.S. Nationals at 55 kg/121 pounds on April 15 in Las Vegas. Now he takes aim at capturing the World Team Trials on May 27-28 in Sioux City, Iowa. The winner there advances to September's World Championships in Guangzhou, China.

"I believe Henry can not only make the World team this year, he can win the whole thing," said Angel Cejudo, Henry's older brother who qualified for the World Team Trials at 132 pounds. "It doesn't matter who he's facing, whether it's a five-time World champ or an Olympic champ. He loves the challenge of facing the best guys and beating them. That's what motivates him and drives him."

A guy who just won his fourth state high school title a couple months ago is now talking about wrestling on the sport's biggest stage against the best in the World at any level.

"Can I make the World team this year? Oh yeah, why not? I just won Nationals," said Cejudo, who competes for the Sunkist Kids. "I have the coaches and I have the resources here to do it. I just have to learn from my mistakes and keep getting better. I don't see why I can't do it."

How good is Cejudo? His mentor, two-time World champion Terry Brands, was asked how the 19-year-old Cejudo compares with where he was at that age. Brands was a two-time NCAA champion at Iowa before concentrating full-time on freestyle.

"He's so much further advanced than I was it isn't even funny," said Brands, who also won an Olympic bronze medal. "Technically, he's as good as anybody on the circuit right now. He has an unbelievable amount of talent, but he also has great mat savvy, an excellent work ethic and very good mind strength. He's just real special to me.

"He's not just special because of how young he is, he's special because of the way he approaches the sport and life. He handles himself very well. He's a joy to be around. I'm going to do my best to mentor him," Brands said.

When the powerful 5-foot-5 Cejudo won in Las Vegas, he became the first high-schooler to win the U.S. Nationals since USA Wrestling became the national governing body for the sport in 1983.

"A U.S. Open title is not his goal, I guarantee that," Brands said of Cejudo's top aspirations. "A World Team Trials title is not his goal either."

Cejudo is aware his self-assuredness rubs some people the wrong way.

"I just say what I believe - and what I believe is I'm going to win," he said. "I'm not trying to offend anybody. I'm just confident in my abilities."

Cejudo's brother said Henry is not a guy who walks around telling everybody how good he is.

"A lot of people say he's overconfident, but he's not cocky or conceited at all, he really isn't," Angel Cejudo said. "We were raised to set our standards high and that's exactly what Henry does. He wrestles to be No. 1 and he wrestles to dominate."

Mitch Hull, USA Wrestling's national teams director, calls Cejudo one of the top four high-school wrestlers ever. The others on Hull's list are Jimmy Carr, Dave Schultz and Cary Kolat.

Carr made the 1972 Olympic team as a high school senior. Schultz won a Senior National Greco-Roman title in high school and went on to be a 1984 Olympic gold medalist. Kolat competed in the Olympic Trials while in high school and became a 2000 Olympian.

The significance of Cejudo's win at U.S. Nationals has drawn some scrutiny since No. 1 seed Sammie Henson, a World champion and Olympic silver medalist, did not compete in Vegas. Neither did Michigan State junior Nick Simmons, who placed third at the 2005 World Team Trials.

The 35-year-old Henson also made the 2005 World team.

"I've wrestled Sammie in practice - I have great respect for him," Cejudo said. "I know what he's accomplished in his career and how great a wrestler he is. If I don't respect a guy like that, I will get pounded. I want an opportunity to wrestle guys like that. I know I have to beat the best to be the best."

Unlike Henson and the other 121-pounders who are trying to make a World Team this year, Cejudo is up early for a daily course load in high school that includes chemistry, algebra, art, mass media and physical education. When the school day ends, he heads straight for the Olympic Training Center and a workout under the watchful eye of Brands.

Once freestyle practice ends late in the afternoon, Cejudo cranks out a few extra push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups, and also climbs a rope across the wrestling room as the Greco-Roman wrestlers begin their daily practice session.

"I put in a lot of extra work," Cejudo said. "But it all pays off."

So what is it about Cejudo's style that is so impressive?

"Henry has great hips and he's naturally gifted - he can throw you from any position, plus he also is very good at finishing leg attacks," Brands said. "He's very intense, and I love that. He will do whatever he can to dominate. The harder you go, the more focused you are."

Cejudo admits he can be stubborn, but said he's bought into Brands' aggressive, hard-nosed philosophy.

"Terry is so fiery and enthusiastic - I love that," Cejudo said. "He's a two-time World champion and that gives him instant credibility. He knows what he's talking about. He's an unbelievable coach. He's helped me improve my technique, my conditioning and my mental approach. I've improved tremendously in every aspect of wrestling because of him."

Cejudo said he hasn't ruled out wrestling in college, and said he would be eligible academically to wrestle Division I next season. But he's leaning toward staying in Colorado Springs and training solely in freestyle.

"I want to win a World and Olympic medal, and you can't do that in folkstyle," Cejudo said. "Wrestling in college is still an option, but as of right now, I don't think I'm going to do it. If Terry would've got the Ohio State job, I would've probably followed him there and wrestled folkstyle in college."

Cejudo's breakthrough win came when he knocked off Junior World champion Besik Kudukhov of Russia last November. Kudukhov is ranked 13th in the World.

"That was real big for my confidence," Cejudo said. "He put a pounding on me, but I came back six months later and did the same thing to him."

Cejudo also owns two wins over 2004 NCAA champion Jason Powell. He beat NCAA runner-up Luke Eustice in the semifinals in Vegas and downed former Iowa State star Matt Azevedo in the finals.

Cejudo and Azevedo earned the top two seeds for the World Team Trials by virtue of finishing 1-2 in Vegas. Henson likely will draw the third seed for the Trials.

Cejudo was born in south central Los Angeles and grew up in Phoenix. He never really knew his father and was raised by his mother.

"My mom is a tough lady who brought us up right," Henry said. "We're well-mannered, hard-working kids who are good people, and that's because of my mom. She's done so much for us."

He also credits the influence of his big brother.

"Angel keeps me in line and makes sure I stay on top of everything," Henry said. "He's very supportive of me and I'm very supportive of him."

Henry Cejudo won a pair of state titles in Arizona before he and Angel, who is two years older, moved to Colorado Springs two years ago to train at the Olympic Training Center.

Cejudo said his competitive fire is evident even during gym class at school.

"No matter what sport I'm playing I'm very competitive," he said. "I lose my temper sometimes playing soccer or flag football because I want to win so badly. If you're playing a game against me, any game, I want to beat you."

Mo Lawal, who made the U.S. World Team last year at 185, trains alongside Cejudo every day at the Olympic Training Center.

"What Henry's doing is really impressive, especially for someone his age," Lawal said. "But it doesn't surprise me that he's having this much success already. He has tremendous potential. He listens really well and has a strong desire to get better. Nobody in here works any harder. And he's very talented. I can see him being a World and Olympic champion someday."

Cejudo's quest to make the World team may prevent him from attending graduation ceremonies with the rest of his class at Coronado High on May 25. He'll be headed to Sioux City to take part in the World Team Trials.

Cejudo hopes to take part in another ceremony, the one immediately following the final match of the tournament when the U.S. World Team is recognized.

"I know my mom would've loved to have gone and seen me go through the graduation ceremony," he said. "But there's not much I can do about it. I'm trying to win a World team medal. That's all I'm focused on right now."
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