Blatnick, Jeff(rey)

views updated

BLATNICK, Jeff(rey)

(b. 26 July 1957 in Schenectady, New York), wrestler celebrated for winning an Olympic gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling, the second ever won for the United States in this competition, after surviving cancer.

Blatnick began his storied wrestling career in 1973 at Schenectady's Niskayuna High School. During his three years of varsity wrestling, he compiled a record of 62–19–0 and in 1975 was the New York State Wrestling Champion in the heavyweight division.

Blatnick continued his athletic accomplishments at Springfield College in Massachusetts, where he was a student between 1975 and 1979. He was a starting offensive tackle on the varsity football team and went on to become a two-time Division II national champion and a three-time Division II All-American in the heavyweight wrestling division. As a senior, he also garnered a third-place finish in the 1979 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I meet, prompting legendary Springfield wrestling coach Doug Parker to deem Blatnick "the best wrestler to compete for the college in any weight class—ever."

It was in Greco-Roman wrestling, however, that Blat-nick made his greatest impact. Upon graduating from Springfield with a degree in physical education, Blatnick qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman team but was unable to compete due to the government boycott of the Games in Moscow. Instead, Blatnick competed in and won the 1980 Amateur Athletic Union Championships and then went on to win a World Cup silver medal. He was an Amateur Athletic Union champion again the next year.

In 1982 Blatnick noticed lumps along the right side of his neck. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in the lymph nodes. "The doctor told me that the tests came up positive," he recalled, "but I never felt like I was going to die."

Doctors removed Blatnick's spleen for precautionary reasons, and he began radiation therapy on his lymph nodes. Only two weeks later, Blatnick resumed working out by pedaling on a stationary bicycle. His workout partners would often ask about the large pink scar on his stomach and about the magic marker scrawls that covered his body. "It was to show the technicians where the radiation treatments were supposed to go and where they were not supposed to go," Blatnick said.

With his treatments complete, Blatnick began training for the 1984 Olympic team. The 248-pound Blatnick qualified and found himself in the gold medal match facing a much larger Swedish wrestler, the 275-pound Thomas Johansson. "The Swede is big," his father told him, "but you've come too far to let anything stop you now." His mother invoked the memory of his brother Dave, who had died seven years earlier in a motorcycle accident. "Do it for Dave," she said.

Blatnick did, winning the 1984 Greco-Roman wrestling gold medal in the super-heavyweight division, defeating Johansson by a score of 2–0. Blatnick became the second U.S. wrestler ever to win a gold medal in the Greco-Roman style. The first, Steve Fraser, won his medal the previous night in the 198-pound division.

In 1985 Blatnick was again diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. After winning this second bout with cancer, which this time required twenty-eight sessions of chemotherapy in 1985 and 1986, Blatnick officially retired from competition. He nonetheless continued to participate in wrestling and American athletics by acting as an Olympic wrestling commentator from 1988 to 2000. He has served on numerous presidential committees on physical fitness and has taught wrestling at camps across the country. He also became a motivational speaker, lecturing to children of all ages, to corporations, and to cancer patients about his own struggles and how he overcame them.

Blatnick once said, "If you can win in adversity, you can win anywhere." This remark not only exemplifies Jeff Blatnick's life but also explains people's fascination with him. Blatnick was a three-time Greco-Roman national champion, an eight-time Greco-Roman All-American, a two-time World Cup medal winner, a two-time Freestyle All-American, and was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1999.

Blatnick won both on and off of the mat and did so in the face of extreme adversity. The victories he achieved over seemingly insurmountable conditions have inspired people to believe that anyone can win.

For information about Blatnick before his participation in the Olympics, see Dave Anderson, "Ecstatic, Not Embarassed," New York Times (6 Aug. 1984). For information on his college years, see Howard M. Davis, "Springfield's Best—Ever," Springfield College Bulletin 53, no. 3 (Jan. 1979). For a look at his years fighting cancer, see Eric Levin, "Greco-Roman Wrestling Star," People Weekly (5 May 1986).

Matthew J. Pierce