Posted at: 10/24/2012 2:19 PM
Updated at: 10/25/2012 10:46 AM
By: WNYT Staff
NISKAYUNA - Niskayuna native Jeff Blatnick, who overcame cancer to win an Olympic gold medal, has died of heart failure. He was 55 years old.
Blatnick took home the gold in Greco-Roman wrestling in 1984.
He died Wednesday at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady.
Blatnick graduated from Niskayuna High School in 1975 and survived Hodgkins Disease before making it to the Olympics in Los Angeles.
After winning the gold, a town park and a gymnasium at the high school were named in his honor.
In recent years Blatnick lived in Burnt Hills. He was a father of two teens, a volunteer coach at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School and a paid coach for the local journeyman wrestling club.
Blatnick had also worked as an announcer for NBC Sports and as a judge and commentator for mixed martial arts.
Blatnick's improbable and inspirational gold medal-winning performance at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Lost Angeles was a benchmark for Greco-Roman Wrestling, never before that year had any American medaled in that sport.
"It was a great thrill to see what a guy from my home town was able to do," said Joe DeMeo, former head coach of the U.S. Greco Roman World Team.
DeMeo coached 47 All-Americans and 5 NCAA champions and says Blatnick is the toughest heavyweight he's ever seen.
"He was a tough guy with lots of spirit and lots of courage," DeMeo recalled. "Those are the kind of things that makes a great champion and Jeff was a great champion."
A great champion who overcame cancer not once, but twice.
"The emotional stress of being sick like that had to be a tremendous drain on a young man," DeMeo speculated. "And maybe that made him more motivated to be successful."
Long before Blatnick became an Olympic hero, long before Niskayuna named its town park after him, Jeff was cut from his high school basketball team.
"I had no one in my wrestling room who weighed over 200 pounds," recalled Joe Bena, who is now in his 47th year coaching high school wrestling. In 1972, he was the varsity coach at Niskayuna.
"I went out in the hall looking for a big kid and I walked up to this big kid, said I was the wrestling coach, and told him we need a big kid," Bena continued. "He looked at me and said, "I don't like wrestling."
In the years to come after making that statement, Blatnick became an undefeated New York State high school champion, a multiple NCAA champion at division II Springfield College, and later Olympic glory.
"I'd often joke with him, I'd say, 'Hey Jeff, you did a really good job for a kid that doesn't like wrestling,'" said Bena.
"His lasting legacy was never completed because there was so much more he was going to do in wrestling," DeMeo offered. "His legacy was as a great husband and father and somebody who became a tremendous, great wrestler and willed himself into being an Olympic champion."
This past summer Blatnick told WNYT he never set out to be an Olympian. It was simply about being the best every time he stepped on the mat.
Below is the profile Benita Zahn did on Jeff Blatnick during this past summer's Olympics.