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Cancer claims Olympic wrestling champ Blatnick

Thu., Oct. 25, 2012

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. – Jeff Blatnick, who overcame cancer to win a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1984 Summer Olympics and went on to a career as a sports commentator and motivational speaker, died Wednesday in New York state at age 55.

Officials at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, N.Y., said he died there of heart failure.

Blatnick was a high school state champion in suburban Albany in the mid-1970s and was a two-time Division II National champion and three-time Division II All-American at Springfield College in Massachusetts.

He qualified for the U.S. Olympic team and was a member of the 1980 squad that didn’t compete because the U.S. boycotted that year’s games in Moscow.

In 1982, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. He was treated and the disease went into remission before he won the gold as a super heavyweight in Los Angeles in 1984.

Blatnick was also a three-time Greco-Roman national champion and won eight Greco-Roman All-American awards, two World Cup medals and two Freestyle All-American honors.

USA Wrestling National Greco-Roman coach Steve Fraser also won a gold medal at the 1984 games as a teammate of Blatnick. Fraser and Blatnick were the first two U.S. Greco-Roman wrestlers to win gold medals.

“I am devastated that Jeff Blatnick, who was a great Greco-Roman champion, has passed away,” Fraser said.

Fraser talked to Blatnick a few weeks ago about working to promote Greco-Roman wrestling.

“I am heartbroken,” he said. “He has done so much for the sport as an athlete, an announcer, a leader and a spokesman. My prayers go out to his family.”

Joe Bena, who coached Blatnick at Niskayuna High School, said he found himself in 1972 without a wrestler of more than 200 pounds.

“I went into the halls looking for a big kid,” he said. Bena found Blatnick, a basketball player who initially said he didn’t want to wrestle.

“Three years later, he was state champ,” the longtime coach said.

Blatnick later returned to the Albany area and worked steadily with youngsters, Bena said, describing him as a “humble guy, down to earth … he never boasted.”

Bob McGuire, the athletic director at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School, recalled Blatnick asking if he could be a volunteer varsity wrestling coach.

“What do you say when you hear that from an Olympic champion?” he said. “You open the door and say, ‘Come on in.’ ”

Blatnick spent six years volunteering at the school.

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