Bill Plaschke, The Times' award-winning sports columnist, has occasionally been accused of mawkishness. But if it's true that violin strings sometimes seem to accompany his prose, it's also true that his best, most heartfelt work involves those who operate far from the klieg lights of Staples Center and the Rose Bowl.
His classic story about Sarah Morris, a Dodgers-obsessed blogger with cerebral palsy, transcended fandom. So too his moving profile of Ricky Rosas, a disabled water boy who became the unofficial mascot of the USC football team, revealed an unlikely brotherhood.
At the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Plaschke found another perfect foil: Henry Cejudo.
Amid the clamor over Michael Phelps' gold medals and Usain Bolt's otherworldly sprinting prowess, Cejudo was in danger of being overlooked. He competed in wrestling, a sport that gets little attention. He has a name that many find difficult to pronounce.
On the advice of Times reporter Kevin Baxter, Plaschke wandered over to the China Agricultural University gym to watch Cejudo win the finals and wrap himself in the stars and stripes. A gem of a column followed, as Plaschke told Cejudo's rags-to-gold-medal tale of redemption.
That column has morphed into "American Victory: Wrestling, Dreams, and a Journey Toward Home," written by Cejudo with Plaschke. The details of Cejudo's below-the-poverty-line upbringing are harrowing. He was born in South Central Los Angeles, the undersized son of illegal immigrants from Mexico. His father was a drug addict who once stole his children's Christmas presents.
His mother, Nelly, left her deadbeat husband, moving the family to New Mexico, and then Arizona, always one step ahead of immigration authorities and landlords. Her six children didn't have furniture or beds; they slept together wrapped in blankets.
For a while, they lived in a crack house and Henry hung out with gangbangers. He last saw his father (now deceased) when he was 5.
"Las Cruces is where I first came to understand the anger that comes hand in hand with poverty," Cejudo writes, "bellies aching after five days of only oatmeal and beans, tempers flaring at the hopelessness of that month's final food stamp."
His first fight came at age 11, when he beat up another kid to win 50 cents from neighborhood thugs. It was, he relates, "a human cockfight."
Cejudo was lucky. He was able to channel his inchoate rage into organized wrestling, and found a path out of darkness. He earned national titles in high school; with his older brother, Angel, he was invited to live at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
There he got to practice with the nation's top wrestlers. Perhaps more important, "for the first time in my life, I finally had my own pillow."
His route to Olympic glory was equally improbable. Ranked 31st in the world, he scrambled just to qualify for the 2008 U.S. team. In Beijing, he had to sweat off 10 pounds in three hours to make weight in the 121-pound division. Then, he came from behind in four consecutive matches to become, at age 21, the youngest American to win a freestyle wrestling gold medal.
His reward? A $65,000 bonus and an appearance on "The Tonight Show." (He's expected to attempt to earn a spot on the U.S. team for 2012.)
"American Victory" is a compelling, if uneven, read. For a book about wrestling, there's little about the strategies used on the mat. At times, the prose tends toward one-sentence paragraphs. Such a stylistic device can be effective in an 800-word column, but it doesn't work as well in narrative form.
Some sentences seem to have escaped a copy editor's attention. "I was known for overcoming late deficits to pull unlikely victories from the palms of defeat," reads one. Or, "The way I lost that match was the way I lost every match that I didn't out-and-out win."
Those flaws aside, "American Victory" represents a triumph of the human spirit. Cejudo is the latest in a long line of unlikely heroes to emerge from harsh circumstances and succeed at the Olympics.
Little Johnny Hayes, an Irish American orphan from the tenements of New York, won the marathon at the 1908 London Games, then hobnobbed with President Theodore Roosevelt. Cassius Clay took gold in 1960; as Muhammad Ali, he overcame poverty and prejudice.
Whether Cejudo proves to be the harbinger of Mexican American success at the Olympics remains to be seen. But his story resonates, a testament to his grit and the well-honed instincts of a reporter forever in search of a good story.
Davis is writing a book about the 1908 Olympics.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times