The Trials of Henry Cejudo, Olympic Wrestling Champ and Immigration Advocate

Wrestler Henry Cejudo, competing at this weekend's U.S. Olympic trials, returns to the mat on a mission: to give illegal immigrants a voice

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Saurabh Das / AP

Henry Cejudo of the U.S. celebrates after defeating Tomohiro Matsunaga of Japan in the final of 55Kg category of men's freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China on August 19, 2008.

The U.S. Olympic wrestling trials, which are being held in Iowa City his weekend, likely aren’t on your must-see list. But they’re worth following (you can catch them online here) because the fate of one of the most important, socially conscious Olympians will be determined.

We’re talking about Henry Cejudo, who you may remember from Beijing: he won a surprise gold in the 55-kg (121 lb) division, and memorably draped his body in the American flag. The symbolism was obvious: Cejudo is the son of illegal immigrants from Mexico, and an example of the success that striving immigrant families can achieve in America.

In the years since Beijing, Cejudo took a break from wrestling and lived in Arizona during the 201o passage of SB 1070, the controversial legislation which requires law enforcement to inquire about someone’s immigration status during a “lawful stop, detention, or arrest.” The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments challenging the law on Wednesday, April 25: critics accuse it of encouraging racial profiling, creating a police state and being unduly harsh to immigrants.

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These critics include Cejudo, who grew up in Arizona, where his mother still lives. He’s returning to the mat, in part, to become a pro-immigrant leader. “I want to change the mentality of people,” Cejudo told TIME during a recent interview. “The only way I can do it on the highest platform is to win another gold medal.” After SB 1070, some of Cejudo’s elementary school friends fled the state.  “My mom lived in Colorado Springs for a while, because she was even afraid to come back to Arizona,” Cejudo says. His mother, Nelly Rico, is now a U.S. citizen. “She had every document you can think of. Back pocket, front pocket, her sleeve, as far as I know, portably her bra. You’re talking about people who live in fear, man. And it’s sad.”

With immigration a hot issue during this election year, Cejudo will receive plenty of attention this summer. But first up is the trials this weekend in Iowa City. Cejudo is far from a lock to make the team. So keep an eye on wrestling: these matches may shape the political debate of the games.

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