At the crossroads of the world, defending Olympic wrestling gold medalist Henry Cejudo began his journey to the 2012 London Games, returning to the mat last Thursday from a 32-month layoff that nearly became permanent. Headlining a charity event in Times Square—a meaningless match had it not been his first since winning the freestyle 55-kg class at the Beijing Olympics—Cejudo thrust his arms skyward and leaped for joy following a 2--0, 4--3 victory in a best-of-three showdown against Rasul Mashezov of Russia.
His smile could not obscure the reality that the comfortable life to which he'd grown accustomed was now on hold. "It's nice sleeping in silk pajamas, but it's time to put on my sweat suit again," Cejudo, 24, said of his comeback. "People don't realize the caveman lifestyle that it takes to be the best." But with London just 15 months away, it's hard not to wonder if Cejudo still possesses the fire that burned in him for six years in the run-up to Beijing.
"To be the greatest wrestler in the world takes two things— heart and brains," says Zeke Jones, who became the U.S. freestyle coach shortly after the '08 Games. "We just don't know where he's at. Is he willing to pay the price?"
Until he started dreaming of London in mid-January, Cejudo wasn't willing to pay the price. After losing 10 pounds in two hours to make weight before the gold medal match in Beijing, he longed for cheeseburgers and buffet lines. When the Olympics were over, Cejudo kept doing his conditioning work, but he was more interested in taking online classes in business administration, hanging out with friends and sleeping in—"to live the life I had never lived," he says.
The son of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Cejudo grew up in poverty in Los Angeles, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado but found salvation in his sport—and a new life when he became the youngest wrestler in U.S. history to win gold.
He appeared on The Tonight Show and Oprah, penned his autobiography and had a shoe line released by Adidas. A bilingual media darling, he crisscrossed the country for speaking engagements while championing immigration reform in of Arizona. "My goal is not to be known as an Olympic champion but to revolutionize a new way of American thinking," says Cejudo.
He left New York last week to begin his comeback in earnest, bound not for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado but for Iowa and sessions with former national team coach Terry Brands. Cejudo's first challenge will be to drop 11 pounds to make the 121-pound weight class for the U.S. team trials starting on June 9 in Oklahoma City. "My eyes are on 2012," he says. "I will be on that Olympic team, and I'm going to win a second gold medal."
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Henry Cejudo isn't the only former gold medalist pointing toward an Olympic comeback. Swimmer Dara Torres, 44, who first won gold at Los Angeles in 1984, has already qualified for next year's Olympic trials in the 50-meter freestyle. Gymnast Shawn Johnson, 19 (Beijing, 2008), has made the U.S. team and plans to return to competition later this year after recovering from ACL surgery on her left knee. And two-time Greco-Roman wrestling medalist Rulon Gardner, 39, who abruptly left NBC's The Biggest Loser midcompetition last month (the show's producers did not divulge his final weight, but he had dropped at least 188 pounds from his original 474), is contemplating a return to the mat. He looked fit in Times Square last week but hasn't made his immediate plans public.
Photograph by DAVID BERGMAN
THE BIG GRAPPLE Cejudo (in red) got his comeback off to a winning start by defeating Mashezov in a U.S.-Russia dual meet in Times Square.
KATSUMI KASAHARA/AP (GARDNER)