EDITOR’S NOTE — This is the story that appeared in The Daily Gazette on Aug. 3, 1984, after Jeff Blatnick won his Olympic gold medal in Anaheim, Calif. It was written by former Gazette sportswriter Mike Kane and headlined, “Blatnick Captures Gold Medal.”
While his parents, who stood draped in the flag of the town of Niskayuna, hugged each other and wept, Jeff Blatnick completed the final, dramatic chapter of his brilliant wrestling career last night by winning an Olympic gold medal.
Blatnick, who two years ago won a battle against Hodgkin’s disease, defeated Thomas Johansson of Sweden, 2-0, in the Greco-Roman heavyweight championship. The emotional victory completed a storybook comeback from the disappointment of being a member of the 1980 U.S. Team that boycotted the Moscow Olympics and the miraculous recovery from the cancer that might have dashed his hopes of ever wrestling again.
Blatnick beat Johansson before a wildly cheering partisan crowd at the Anaheim Convention Center, driving the Swede to his knees twice in the final minute of the match to record his winning points. He scored a takedown with 1:04 remaining and clinched the title with another takedown with 26 seconds left. “I’m really happy that we could do this. I just hope all the kids coming up can do the same thing,” said Blatnick, who has been an assistant coach at Nebraska and at North Dakota State and has most recently made his living working for a mechanical piping construction company.
A few days before the competition started, he talked about his experience with cancer.
“If I can be an inspiration to anybody, that’s great,” he said then. “You find a certain attitude in most wrestlers. We’re all a bit egocentric. We go through some kind of tough training routine. Wrestling is as intimate as you can get in sports as far as bodily contact. I never lost sight of what I wanted to do.”
Blatnick opened the competition Tuesday night by defeating former world champion Refik Memesvic of Romania on a disqualification. He lost a decision to a Greek wrestler later that night, but gained his berth in the final when Memesevic defeated the Greek.
“He had one loss and maybe that’s a little humility, but it was an unbelievable performance,” said Adirondack Three-Style Wrestling Association Coach Joe DeMeo of Niskayuna last night in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “He wrestled beautifully against the Yugoslav when he beat him. He wrestled a great match and the same kind of match here. He just wore the guy out and eventually the guy just died under his grinder pressure. It was magnificent.”
Frank Famiano of Rotterdam, like Blatnick a product of the ATWA program, remains in contention for a medal in the 125.5 pound class despite a loss last night. Famiano won his first three matches of the tournament, two Wednesday, and one yesterday afternoon when officials honored a protest and overturned a loss, before dropping a 4-0 decision to a Romanian wrestler.
Earlier in the day, Famiano, in a reversal of an earlier decision, was declared t he winner of a 125.5 pound preliminary by the International Wrestling Federation.
The apparent victim of an amazing comeback by Turkey’s Mehmets Karadag, Famiano was awarded the preliminary after a protest by the United States team.
Famiano built up an 18-7 lead at halftime, but Karadag scored three perfect headlock throws in the second half to post a 21-18 victory. The Americans, however, claimed that the referees erred in not awarding Famiano the victory when the score was 18-5.
After viewing a videotape of the match, officials allowed the protest and declared Famiano the winner.
DeMeo said that Famiano still can compete for the gold if he wins his next match and gets some help, in that same manner that Blatnick did.
“That puts him in the round-robin, so he’s in the top six in the Olympics,” DeMeo said. “He can still win if he beats the German. If he beats the German and the German beats the other guy, Frank will win because he has the most good points.”
Chris Catalfo, the third ATWA member on the Olympic team, finished seventh in the 21-man 163.0 weight class.
DeMeo and Joe Bena, the Niskayuna High School coach who encouraged him to come out for the sport a decade ago, were part of the crowd that cheered Blatnick to the gold medal.
“It’s the dream of a lifetime for any coach in the United States to have an Olympic champion, but for somebody to have an Olympic champion in Greco-Roman style is a much bigger dream because it had never been attained,” DeMeo said, in reference ot the fact that the U.S. had never won a medal in that style before Wednesday when Steve Fraser of Ann Arbor, Mich., earned the gold medal at 198.5 pounds. “And here we are, we’ve got Steve Fraser and now we’ve got Jeff Blatnick.”
“I think that the community has got to be sky-high. I know that Jeff is sky-high. He’s a magnificent athlete. He’s trained hard and he deserved to win. He worked so hard, for so long. Coming back from his illness was a big step mentally. Overcoming that and then to train hard enough to make a commitment great enough to become an Olympic champion and beat a world champion and a place-winner in the world championships on the way to a gold medal is a great thrill. It was a great performance by a great athlete.
“It caps a tremendous year, a tremendous career. Who knows what he is going to do from here. But it’s been a great career. He was an NCAA (Division II at Springfield College), a National AAU champion and a silver medalist at the World Cup. You name it, Jeff has done it. And now to be an Olympic champion and to go down in the history books as one of the first Americans to win a medal, well, no one can take that from him. It’s a great accomplishment.”