IOWA CITY, Iowa -- After the public show had come to an end, after taking off his wrestling shoes, tossing them to the crowd and subsequently receiving a standing ovation, Henry Cejudo made the long, slow walk through the tunnel of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, his head down.
He walked until he couldn't walk anymore. Once he reached the end of the hallway, his personal trainer, Brian Davis, wrapped his arms around him.
"I told him how extremely proud I am of him," Davis said. "What he did, there is no shame in any of it. It has to end sometime. Everyone wants it to end a certain way, but today it didn't work out that way."
A few minutes later, Cejudo sat in front of the cameras and tried to put it all into words. Four years earlier, he was the youngest American to win Olympic gold. His story of growing up the son of illegal immigrants and overcoming a childhood of poverty had captivated the country and was turned into a play. He had written two books, became a motivational speaker and had his own wrestling shoe.
But, at 25 years old, he decided Sunday his career was over. He had retired in 2009, but came back last year with the goal of becoming just the fourth American wrestler to win two Olympic gold medals. He also wanted to win gold in front of his mother, who had been unable to attend the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing due to her immigration status. But in an epic 3-9, 5-9, 5-2 semifinal loss to top-seeded Nick Simmons on Saturday, those dreams all came to an end.
When the match ended, Cejudo didn't waste any time. He promised his mother that if things didn't go well this weekend, he would retire. So Cejudo sat in the middle of Mat 3 and untied his shoes. Some 14,000 fans, knowing full well what this meant, rose to their feet in applause. That's when Cejudo walked to the edge of the mat and heaved both shoes into the crowd.
When he met the media a few minutes later, he tried to process it all. As he sat down behind the podium, he took a deep breath. Then another. He began to speak but couldn't. He didn't yet have the words, so he bowed his head and took yet another deep breath. Now he was ready.
"This sport has given me everything," he said. "You're talking about a kid who grew up in poverty, a son of Mexican immigrants that came to the United States with a dream. I came back to this sport because I want to inspire people. I can only say I'm sad, but at the same time, I gave it my all."
Prior to Saturday, Cejudo had wrestled competitively only three times since his retirement. In December, he left the regional training facility in Columbus, Ohio, to return home to Arizona and train with Davis, a former Super Bowl champion with the Washington Redskins. No one outside of Cejudo's camp knew what to expect this weekend at trials.
"He was coming to win, not only here but win the Olympics," Davis said. "We had no plans whatsoever of being derailed. But the reality of sports is that it happens and you have to deal with it."
Cejudo said Sunday is not the end of his career in wrestling, just the end of competing. He hopes to spend the coming months working with whoever qualifies for the Olympics at 55 kilograms, be it Simmons or someone else. "I want to make their Olympic dream come true," he said.
Beyond that, there are plans to continue working as a motivational speaker and helping inspire children from lower-economic areas. On Sunday, he insisted the end of his competitive career is only the beginning of his life.
"Put me in front of any kid, a soccer player, a random kid in the ghettos. Put me around those people," Cejudo said. "That's what motivates me, that's what inspires me. I don't need wrestling. Don't get me wrong -- to me, wrestling is the greatest sport alive, it's made me who I am. But now I'm ready to move on."
The more Cejudo spoke, the more the initial look of shock and surprise on his face morphed into smiles. After recording a phone message for his mother back in Arizona, telling her he loved her and he'd be home soon, he ordered the media not to feel sorry for him.
"This isn't the end of Henry Cejudo," he said. "Everybody just smile. It is what it is."