A Capital District sports legend passed away last Wednesday.
Olympic gold medalist Jeff Blatnick died of complications from heart surgery at Ellis Hospital at the age of 55.
Duanesburg wrestling coach Joe Bena – who coached Blatnick at Niskayuna High School in the mid 1970s – saw Blatnick two days earlier at a Section II meeting.
“I had no clue Jeff was sick,” said Bena. “He never said anything about his health, but then again he never complained about his health. Even when he went through his cancer treatments, he never complained. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Blatnick gained national attention when he won the super heavyweight Greco Roman wrestling gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, in part due to his battle to overcome Hodgkins lymphoma two years earlier. His achievement led to the United States Olympic team voting for him to carry the American flag at the closing ceremony.
Since then, Blatnick took on several roles including motivational speaker, mixed martial arts judge, a TV sports commentator and for the past seven years, a volunteer assistant coach with the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School wrestling program. He also worked with Journeyman Wrestling as a coach.
“We were very fortunate to have Jeff working in our program,” said BH-BL varsity wrestling coach Steve Jones. “It was great to have him in the (practice) room in terms of technical support. He always had a great knowledge of wrestling technique.”
Blatnick’s interest in coaching high school wrestling was fueled by his son, Ian. The younger Blatnick took up his father’s sport and was about to enter his senior season with the wrestling team at the time of his father’s death.
“Ian is a great kid – always has a smile on his face,” said Jones.
Also a football player, Ian Blatnick was preparing for last Friday’s Section II Class A semifinal game against Queensbury when his father died. Ian decided to suit up for the contest, and varsity coach Matt Shell let Ian play the last five minutes of a 36-20 victory.
“It was a good thing for him to do,” said Shell. “Sports can’t take away the tragedy, but it helped him to be there around people that were supportive of him.”
The rest of Blatnick’s family is also involved in the BH-BL sports community. Jeff’s wife, Lori, is a member of the BH-BL football and wrestling booster clubs, and his daughter, Niki, plays volleyball.
Blatnick’s own sports career took off when he joined Bena’s wrestling program at Niskayuna in 1972. Within three years, Blatnick won the state title in his weight class.
“He said he didn’t like wrestling (when first asked to join the team), but I was persistent and he came out,” said Bena. “Three years later, he was a state champion. That says a lot about his drive and determination.”
From Niskayuna, Blatnick went to Springfield College, where he won two NCAA Division II titles. He made the 1980 United States Olympic wrestling team, but he didn’t get the chance to go to Moscow when America boycotted the games.
Blatnick’s pursuit of an Olympic medal took another detour in 1982 when he was diagnosed with cancer – the first of two battles he would eventually wage against the disease. He pulled through the treatment and gained a spot on the U.S. team for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. There, he defeated Sweden’s Thomas Johansson 2-0 in the finals to become the second American to win an Olympic gold medal in Greco Roman wrestling.
Bena was present for Blatnick’s golden moment.
“That was pretty exciting to see one of my former wrestlers standing up there (on the podium) as they raised flag,” said Bena.
The battles Blatnick waged against cancer in 1982 and 1985 created a desire within him to help others going through it. He spoke at numerous fundraisers, including last month’s Shellstrong event in Burnt Hills – a charity created when Matt Shell’s son, Jacob, battled through an aggressive form of cancer several years ago.
“He wanted to say some words, and he jumped at the chance,” said Shell. “He gets it – that it affects everybody.”
Blatnick’s Olympic performance inspired others in the Capital District including a young Jason Morris, who went on to compete at four Olympics in judo. Morris became friends with Blatnick in the 1990s.
“I was a fan of his. Then it became a mutual respect thing because we were both Olympians, and then it became friends,” said Morris.
Blatnick and Jones brought the BH-BL wrest-ling team to Morris’ Glen-ville judo center last year for a clinic that bridged the two sports’ worlds. It was something Blatnick was familiar with, having worked in the mixed martial arts world both as a commentator and a judge.
“I could see why he’d want to get involved in MMA because it is a challenging sport, and he loves a challenge,” said Bena.
Now, all of those sports worlds – as well as the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake and Niskayuna communities – are mourning Blatnick’s death.
“I think his loss to every community he was involved in will be huge,” said Morris. “He was very innovative in everything he did. There’s nothing that’s going to fill that.”
“Jeff was a lot of things to a lot of people,” said Bena. “He’s a hero, he’s a champion, he’s an ambassador to the sport of wrestling, (and) he was a role model to younger wrestlers.
“He was one of us, and now he’s gone. And you don’t replace that with something else.”
Blatnick was laid to rest Monday in Niskayuna following a service at Our Lady of Grace Church in Ballston Lake.