BURNT HILLS — For the past couple years, his Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake girls’ varsity volleyball team could play anywhere in the state and head coach Gary Bynon knew to expect the question.
At some point, someone was going to see his team’s roster or hear Niki Blatnick’s name called out, make the connection and need to ask.
“Is that Jeff’s daughter?”
Proudly, Niki Blatnick is that.
She’s also the daughter of a man who tragically passed away when she was 13 years old, a year before the start of her high school career that culminates this upcoming week with graduation just days after Father’s Day.
Nearly everywhere she’s gone during her high school career, Niki Blatnick has known people around her — both friends and strangers — know about her famous father and the tragedy that hit her family nearly five years ago when Jeff Blatnick passed away unexpectedly at age 55 of cardiopulmonary arrest.
“You would think that would make it harder because everyone might be like, ‘Oh, that’s the girl whose father passed away when she was in eighth grade,’” Niki Blatnick, 18, said this past Monday after her final day of high school. “But I think it’s been easier because everyone knew him so everyone was OK talking about him.”
That never changed.
“Even before [his death],” Niki Blatnick said, laughing, “everyone talked to me about my dad because he was cool.”
That he was. He was the athlete who beat cancer to win a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The guy who helped codify the rules of mixed martial arts, allowing for its transition from fringe spectacle to mainstream sport. The man who returned to the Capital Region and donated so much of his time to Special Olympics and other youth sports. A lot of people have Jeff Blatnick stories to tell.
Sometimes, her deceased father wasn’t a topic she wanted brought up. She’s a big wrestling fan — and tried it for a year as a youngster — but the memories Niki Blatnick prefers about her father are the ones of them eating Pop-Tarts together as they watched TV before her school bus arrived, their alone time after mom Lori Blatnick and older brother Ian Blatnick had already started their days.
But the graceful way in which Niki Blatnick handled conversations about her father with interested strangers is the thing that most stuck out to her coach, who remembers how people used to gravitate toward Jeff Blatnick.
“Not many kids have to go through anything like that,” Bynon said, “and how she’s handled it has always been so impressive to me.”
But throughout her high school career, Niki Blatnick regularly impressed. She played on varsity softball and volleyball teams, winning a state title and two area championships with the school’s volleyball team. She was a member of multiple honor societies for her academics, yet found time to work both at Market 32 and as a babysitter.
Along the way, she brightened the days of those around her.
“She’s just such a great, mature, positive person,” said Danielle Manning, one of Niki Blatnick’s high school teachers. “She always has a smile on her face.”
Manning, a family and consumer sciences teacher, often gets to teach students for multiple years of their high school careers. The best part about that, she said, is the chance it affords her to watch young teenagers grow into young adults. In that regard, Niki Blatnick was an outlier. Her sophomore self was more like a senior in terms of her confidence and poise.
“She was already so mature,” said Manning, whose son James has become one of Niki Blatnick’s babysitting charges.
Circumstances dictated Niki Blatnick grow up quicker than most. She gets that — and she’s grateful for the people around her who helped make that possible.
“The way our community had our backs when it all happened really helped my entire family keep pushing forward and keep having the best possible outlook on life,” said Niki Blatnick, who counts her mom as her best friend. “I miss my dad, obviously, but he’s easy to talk about because I like talking about my dad. . . . For the most part, I can handle it. That’s a way I can connect him into my life.”
Next up — well, after a summer she sees including lots of time by the pool — her life is taking her to state University at Cortland. Niki Blatnick had opportunities to play college volleyball — “You’d get someone who’s gonna do a lot of good things,” Bynon told interested college coaches on her behalf — but her maturity showed in her decision to head to the school she saw as the best academic fit for her despite the lack of a roster spot. She plans to study some combination of psychology and early childhood education.
“I want to work with kids,” Niki Blatnick said. “I want to help people.”
At Cortland, her last name will stick out less than it does in the Capital Region. She sees both the positives and negatives in that, and is ready to handle both with a smile.
“I feel like it’s a new chapter,” Niki Blatnick said. “I feel like I’m ready for that.”