An Olympic gold medalist, a two time cancer survivor, an inspiration. Former wrestler Jeff Blatnick fought to give back to those around him in the Capital Region. He died suddenly Wednesday and now those he touched are left with a void. Innae Park has more on his legacy.
CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. -- It was a reluctant start for a man who would grapple his way to history. Jeff Blatnick began as an uninterested high school wrestler, picked by Coach Joe Bena in 1972.
“I came up to this big kid and said, ‘I need someone who weighs above 200 pounds and you look like you're there. You could be our varsity heavyweight wrestler.’ And he looked at me and said, 'I don't like wrestling,'” recalled Bena.
Nonetheless, Blatnick joined the team. He became a standout wrestler and state champion at Niskayuna High School, where a park in the town now bears his name. At Springfield College, he was named an All-American and in 1980, became a member of the U.S. Olympic team. He did not participate because the U.S. boycotted the games that year.
Bena says it was clear from the beginning that Blatnick was a fighter in every way.
“In '82, he was operated on and went through chemotherapy for cancer. And he had the determination to come back and make the '84 Olympic team,” he said.
Blatnick went on to win gold in Los Angeles. He and his teammate were the first Americans to ever win in Greco-Roman wrestling.
However, his legacy didn't end there. Blatnick served as an Olympic commentator and was active in growing the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. He also became a motivational speaker. All this was done in the area where he was from.
Bena explained, “[He] never forgot his roots. He came back here and worked with our kids and helped so many other wrestlers become all that they could be.”
One of those impacted by Blatnick: Frank Popolizio.
“The reason I wrestle is partly because of that inspiration. I watched him win the gold medal, I remember specifically where I was and how it went down,” he said. “That made me proud to be a wrestler, a Niskayuna wrestler in particular.”
Now Popolizio is educating the next generation with the Journeymen Wrestling Club. Blatnick coached there too. Popolizio describes the impact he had on youth as indescribable.
“Once you're exposed to that greatness, it's hard not to embrace it and be a part of it,” reminisced Popolizio.
Not just youth, but anyone who was touched by the gold medalist, family man and passionate teacher.
Bena said, “I'm going to miss that man. And it won’t be real until I walk on to that mat and there's no Jeff Blatnick over there.”
A statement from Ellis Hospital revealed that Blatnick died of cardio-pulmonary arrest Wednesday. Few other details are being released.
Blatnick was serving as a volunteer assistant coach with the Burnt Hills High School wrestling team.
The district's athletic director, Bob McGuire, released a statement about his longtime friend.
McGuire said, "He was a man who was totally respected by everyone he touched. He was respected for his knowledge, character and spirit. Jeff was a major part of our wrestling program and was a great role model for students who came through our program. Jeff will be truly missed by our entire coaching staff, our wrestling community, which we call family, and all members of our community. We have lost a true gentlemen, leader, coach, and friend."
Blatnick was a 1975 graduate of Niskayuna and the gymnasium of Niskayuna High School is named after the late athlete.
The district released a statement that said, “We are deeply saddened by the news of the death of alumnus and Olympian Jeff Blatnick. The entire Niskayuna School community mourns the loss of this friend, who accomplished so much and made us so proud. It was not just his achievements in wrestling that made Jeff a role model for the students who followed in his footsteps in the halls of Niskayuna schools and in the athletic arena. Students and teachers alike have been inspired by his courage, his perseverance in overcoming challenges, and his generosity with his time. Jeff will be missed, but he will be forever remembered in the Niskayuna School community.”