The world watched as 26-year-old Jeff Blatnick dropped to his knees on the floor of the Anaheim Convention Center and openly wept. In that moment in 1984, he was a national hero, an Olympic gold medalist and the world’s happiest dude.
The stocky man who beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma not once, but twice, would be remembered in his local community nearly three decades later as humble and handsome, the kind of guy who makes a room go quiet when he speaks.
He was also known as a man who defeated all odds. So when he unexpectedly died Wednesday at age 55 of cardiopulmonary arrest at Ellis Hospital, a community went into shock and mourning.
A local hero
Local wrestling community remembers role model, mentor, friend who “never hesitated to give back.” Click HERE.
A moment in time
View the Gazette story that appeared on Aug. 3, 1984, after Blatnick won the gold medal. Click HERE.
“I’ve had doctors tell me that I’ll have leukemia and all this other crap,” Blatnick told the Daily Gazette in 1991. “You have to let it go in and out. The whole reason you’re here is to live. Whether I’m sick or not, I still have the same things that I want to do with myself. So the best thing to do is do those things.”
Blatnick was born and raised in Niskayuna, a town that would later name a high school gymnasium and park after him.
But well before that, in 1972, the wrestling coach at Niskayuna High School was lamenting the fact that he didn’t have a single guy who weighed more than 200 pounds in his wrestling room.
“I saw this big kid in the hall and I walked up to him and said, 'I’m Joe Bena, the wrestling coach, and you could be our heavyweight,’” Bena recalled Wednesday. “And he said, 'I don’t like wrestling.’ When I would see him after that, I’d tell him he’d done OK for a guy who didn’t like wrestling.”
He first hit the wrestling mat in 1973. The next few years were a time when very little happened in school without Principal Frank Taormina bearing witness.
“I saw him wrestle many times,” he recalled Wednesday. “By the time he was a senior, he was overwhelmingly powerful as a wrestler. He would subdue his opponents so quickly that you would just kind of gasp at his ability to do that.”
In 1975, his senior year, he would become the state heavyweight champion. As a student at Springfield College in Massachusetts, he won NCAA Division II heavyweight titles. Still, most people at the time didn’t know they were watching a two-time Olympian in the making.
Taormina, whose memory is now spotty, recalled him as a responsible student, well liked and good-natured.
One thing he never forgot was just how excited the community was less than a decade later when one of their own took home the gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, one of the first Americans to do so.
“There are very few people around here who have achieved anything that was comparable to what he achieved,” he said. “All of us were caught up that this guy we all knew, who had been so much a part of our community, was achieving that kind of success.”
The real contest
Blatnick roared from obscurity to center stage in large part because of his life before the gold medal.
He was diagnosed in 1982 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the lymph system and required him to undergo surgery to remove his spleen and appendix.
The news came right in the midst of an intense training period for Blatnick. He had qualified two years earlier for the Olympic Games in Moscow, which were boycotted. He was forced to give up training for six months while he underwent surgery and received daily radiation treatments.
So his quick return to Herculean athleticism at the 1984 Olympic Games was remarkable to many. Competing on an international stage required superb mental and physical condition.
Just a week before he beat Swede Thomas Johansson for the gold medal he told the Daily Gazette what that transition from patient to athlete was like.
“There were always some doubts, especially after the treatments were finished and I was labeled arrested and cured,” he said. “I had problems with my condition and my strength, and, regardless of what I would do, I would get tired very quickly. That was just a side effect of all of the treatment I had gone through and something that mentally I wasn’t accepting that it did happen. But it did happen. It’s something that you just can’t shut out of your mind.”
Blatnick’s back story was media gold. He was both well spoken and sincere, both brawn and brains. And he used the attention in a positive way.
He began giving motivational speeches to corporate clients. He traveled from state to state to state in a matter of days, and began doing charity work for the Leukemia Society, American Cancer Society and several other organizations.
Bena, the man who got him started in the sport and was with him at the 1984 Olympics, would get phone calls from people who had a friend or relative with cancer. They had heard Blatnick’s story and wanted to know if there was a way to get in touch with him.
“And he always took time,” recalled Bena. “He was a great spokesman, not only for the sport of wrestling, but he did so much for people like that. He really was inspirational.”
Blatnick also provided television commentary for NBC during the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and later Olympics Games’ in Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney. He was a commentator for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and named UFC commissioner in 1998.
When Blatnick hung up his wrestling singlet in 1988, he admitted he would probably have second thoughts, that the “old warrior spirit will dream of being in there fighting.”
To be clear, he never really left the sport. He was always an advocate and ambassador for the sport, said Frank Popolizio, a former Niskayuna wrestler who runs the Journeymen Wrestling Club.
“He’s had an impact on so many wrestlers from our area,” he said. “He was always willing to help. Jeff never forgot where he came from. He was always part of the community.”
A Hall of Fame plaque hanging inside Niskayuna High School reminds students to this day. School officials released a statement on his death Wednesday that said Blatnick was a role model for the students who followed in his footsteps in the halls of Niskayuna schools.
“Students and teachers alike have been inspired by his courage, his perseverance in overcoming challenges and his generosity with his time,” the statement read. “Jeff will be missed, but he will be forever remembered in the Niskayuna School community.”
Blatnick lived in Ballston Lake and is survived by his wife Lori, and his two children, Ian and Niki. His family asked for privacy Wednesday following his death.
Ian and Niki attend school at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central Schools, where their father has volunteered for the last six years as a varsity wrestling coach. The night before he died, the Board of Education approved his position for another year.
On Monday night, Blatnick watched his daughter play volleyball in the school gymnasium and stayed afterward for a coaches meeting at 7 p.m. He looked just fine, according to Athletic Director Bob McGuire.
“I had no indication that he was sick,” he said.
Blatnick told McGuire he was going into the hospital for a stress test the next day, but never elaborated.
“We lost a gentleman, a great leader an unbelievable coach and a good friend,” said McGuire. “You never replace an individual of that stature.”
The two actually went to college together in Springfield, Mass., though they weren’t close at the time. When Blatnick’s son was in the seventh grade, he approached the school about joining the wrestling program as a volunteer coach.
“What do you say to an Olympic champion who asks to help? You say, 'Yes, welcome aboard and let me get the door for you,’” joked McGuire.
It was the start of a new tradition for the school district. He worked with students from the seventh grade on up. But he was far more than just a legendary athlete and role model for young wrestlers.
McGuire described him as a man of character with distinctive spirit.
“The spirit that Jeff had for helping others, always wanting to extend that open hand for assistance, he was just an unbelievable person for that. And that, I think, is something that people will remember about Jeff for a long time.”