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Plaschke: A moment to remember. Thanks, Henry Cejudo

August 20, 2008 |  5:28 am

Henry Cejudo celebrates. BEIJING -– You travel 6,257 miles in search of Olympic moments, and what happens?

The Olympic moments find you.

It happens every two years, and happened again Tuesday afternoon as I sat in the Tribune Co.'s offices, prepared to write a column about the U.S. women’s soccer team.

Kevin Baxter, another Times writer, suddenly popped up from the printer and began waving a piece of paper in my face.

"Hey, you going over to the wrestling match?" he said.

"What wrestling match?" I said.

"It’s the Los Angeles-born son of two undocumented Mexican immigrants wrestling for a gold medal," he said. "It says here he just qualified for the finals in two hours."

At that point, I had never heard of Henry Cejudo. I’m guessing most of America had never heard of Henry Cejudo.

He’s a 21-year-old kid wrestler who lost in the first round of last year’s world championships, so how would anybody hear of him?

His 121-pound Olympic competition had only started Tuesday morning, he had to pull three upsets in about three hours to get to the final, so how could anybody have kept up with him?

That’s how it works in the Olympics. In a span of two minutes, a stranger can become a story, and you can be charged with turning anonymity into art, or something like that.

Twenty minutes earlier, I wouldn’t know Henry Cejudo from Henry Winkler. But now that I knew him, I had to see him.

"I'm going," said Baxter, whose energy finished selling me on the story.

"OK, I'm going with you," I said.

I stopped writing the soccer story, packed up my large rolling briefcase (everyone calls me a bag lady) and boarded a bus headed for the China Agricultural University Gymnasium (or, as I like to call it, Beijing A & M.).

There were only a few American reporters there. Like me, others must have missed the e-mail announcing the match. Unlike me, they didn’t have Kevin Baxter to save them.

Even before the match, I felt something special. As the loudspeaker played rock music, seemingly everyone in the arena began dancing. Even the round, stoic wrestling judges were dancing.

It was as if they knew they were about to witness something cool. And sure enough, Cejudo came out diving and grabbing and eventually throwing Tomohiro Matsunaga on his side.

I don’t understand much about wrestling scoring. But it was clear Cejudo was the aggressor, and it clearly made sense that he won the first two rounds, thus clinching the best-of-three-round match.

What happened next, I could have never guessed.

Many of us watching Cejudo felt very patriotic, knowing his childhood struggles as he was raised with five siblings by a single mother who worked menial jobs from Los Angeles to Las Cruces to Phoenix.

We knew that only in America, it seemed, could a kid grow up poor and anonymous and rise above it to win an Olympic gold.

We knew. We had no idea that Cejudo also knew.

After winning the match, his welted face cracked into a flood of tears. He then grabbed a flag and spent  the next 15 minutes using it for everything.

He buried his face in it. He wrapped his body in it. He used it as a cape to flap behind him as he walked around the arena.

He cried, and clutched the flag, and cried some more, and soon some in the stands were about to cry with him.

I have never seen, in any Olympic champion, such a genuine gratitude toward America. It is, so far, my best Beijing Olympic moment.

Thank you, Henry Cejudo, for finding me.

-- Bill Plaschke

Photo: Henry Cejudo celebrates his gold medal victory Tuesday night. Credit: Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune