WRESTLING'S BLATNICK DIES

1984 Olympic gold medalist from Niskayuna was 55

MARK SINGELAIS
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Thursday, October 25, 2012

Jeff Blatnick, the "happy dude" from Niskayuna who overcame cancer to win a Greco-Roman wrestling gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, died Wednesday. He was 55.


Ellis Hospital in Schenectady released a statement about Blatnick's death, reporting he died there of cardiopulmonary arrest. His family requested that no other information be released.


"We lost a giant today," said USA Wrestling spokesman Gary Abbott, who knew Blatnick for more than three decades. "Not just because he was a heavyweight. Because he was a great man."


Blatnick became a national hero when he defeated Sweden's Thomas Johansson in the heavyweight final in the Summer Games in Los Angeles, two years after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease.


When time expired, Blatnick dropped to his knees, looked skyward and clasped his hands above his head.


"I'm a happy dude," Blatnick told an ABC interviewer before breaking down in tears.


Former Niskayuna High coach Joe Bena, who introduced Blatnick to the sport, said that memorable celebration captured the essence of the man.


"The way he acted after he won it showed his humility," Bena said. "Not jumping around like, 'Look what I did.' It was 'Thank you, God,' being a very humble person. I'll remember him as a happy man, a family man willing to help anyone who needed help with anything."


Bena said Blatnick, a volunteer assistant at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, appeared to be healthy when they last met on Monday at a Section II coaches' meeting.


"I'm shocked and it's not real yet," said Bena, who now works at Duanesburg. "It won't be real until I go on a (wrestling) mat where Jeff usually is."


Blatnick, who had played basketball, resisted Bena's first attempts to convert him to wrestling at Niskayuna High in 1972.


"I had no one in my room that weighed over 200 pounds," Bena recalled. "I went out in the hallway and waited for a big kid and told him he could be a varsity heavyweight wrestler. Wasn't interested. I was persistent. I always joked with him later, 'You did a nice job for a guy who didn't like wrestling.' "


He went on to become a high school state champion and won two NCAA Division II titles at Springfield College.


He made the Olympic team in 1980, only to be denied when the United States boycotted that year's Games in Moscow.


"I went to see him in the recovery room and he said, 'I'm going to be there in '84," Bena recalled. "That showed his determination."


Joe DeMeo, a Mont Pleasant graduate who coached Blatnick in international competition, said tenacity fueled his success.


"(Blatnick) had as much fire and fight as anybody you could ever find," DeMeo said. "His work ethic was unparalleled. He was an unbelievably hard worker."


Blatnick later became a motivational speaker, an honorary coach for the Special Olympics and a television commentator for wrestling and mixed martial arts events.


"He was a great, great person," said USA Greco-Roman wrestling coach Steve Fraser, a Blatnick teammate who also won gold at the 1984 Olympics. "I know myself, and tons of wrestling people, that are just going to be devastated by this."


Blatnick is survived by his wife, Lori, his son, Ian, who is a Burnt Hills wrestler, and daughter, Niki.


Funeral arrangements were not available.


msingelais@timesunion.com - 518-454-5509 - @MarkSingelais





On the Web


Watch Blatnick win gold in L.A. at http://timesunion.com.