No matter how famous he became after winning an Olympic gold medal 28 years ago, the Section II wrestling community — and the community at large — always considered Jeff Blatnick one of their own.
Blatnick, a 1975 state high school champion for Niskayuna and 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the heavyweight division in Greco-Roman wrestling, died Wednesday at Ellis Hospital of cardiopulmonary failure. He was 55.
“We would always hear about NCAA champions and Olympians, and they were always from some place else,” said Joe Bena, who talked a reluctant Blatnick into wrestling for him at Niskayuna as a sophomore in 1972, beginning a 40-year friendship. “He gave the kids around here hope. He showed them that there was nothing they couldn’t accomplish.
“It’s not real, it probably won’t be for awhile. I just saw Jeff Monday night at a coaches’ meeting. He came up to me after the meeting and shook my hand. We didn’t talk for very long, but he didn’t mention anything about not feeling well.”
Blatnick made the 1980 Olympic team, but the United States boycotted the Moscow Games. While training for the 1984 Games, Blatnick was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer he would beat again after his Olympic success.
“I went to see him in the recovery room after he was operated on, and he said. ‘Coach, I’m going to be on that 1984 team,’ ” Bena recalled.
True to his word, Blatnick not only made the Olympic team, but joined teammate Steve Fraser as the first two Americans to win Greco-Roman gold when he beat Sweden’s Thomas Johansson, 2-0, in the super-heavyweight division.
“Most people know he was an Olympic champion, but to us, he’s a guy you’d see at the market, at the shopping center,” said Bena, who was among a local contingent that Blatnick wanted in Los Angeles to share his Olympic experience. “He never forgot where he came from. He’d always come back and help the younger wrestlers.”
Frank Popolizio, another former Niskayuna wrestler who owns and runs the Journeymen Wrestling Club, first met Blatnick in 1982.
“He was a role model for the wrestlers at Niskayuna, and later, I knew him as a mentor and a friend,” Popolizio said. “People don’t realize the impact Jeff had on so many people from this area. You can’t believe the number of phone calls and text messages I’ve gotten
today, hundreds of them, some of them literally in tears, he meant so much to them.
“I had a contract with Jeff to coach at Journeyman until Fargo [the July national championships in Fargo, N.D.] I had to tell him to get lost in September, go spend time with his family. He was that devoted to helping kids.
“We’ve lost not just a great competitor and teacher, but a great man, who was a regular guy, someone who never forgot where he came from.”
Joe DeMeo coached Blatnick and several other wrestlers from the Adirondack Three-Style Wresting Association club that dominated Greco-Roman wrestling nationally in the 1980s.
“I’m very shocked,” said DeMeo. “I talked to him Saturday. I’m so sorry for his family.”
DeMeo and Blatnick had their differences, both during and after Blatnick’s career ended, but the coach spoke fondly of the two-time Division II All-American at Springfield College, who placed third at the 1979 NCAA Division I tournament.
“He was the hardest-working heavyweight I ever saw,” DeMeo said. “He was a fighter. He beat cancer twice. He was a goer, a guy that knew how to make things happen. It’s just so sad.”
Andy Seras, another Niskayuna wrestling alumnus and ATWA teammate, roomed with Blatnick during their Olympic training years.
“He was the hardest worker for a heavyweight I had seen at that point,” said Seras, himself an Olympian. “He might not have had the most talent, but he maximized his results because of hard work.
“Some of my fondest memories are from when he was still getting chemo, we’d play basketball, for like two, 21⁄2 hours. The sweat would erase the lines they’d drawn on him for his treatments, and I’d have to draw the lines back on his chest and arms. The next day, we’d go back out and play for another two hours.
“This has just been a sad, sad day.”
Blatnick had been both a paid and volunteer assistant coach with the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School wrestling team for eight years, long before his son, Ian, now a senior, got to the varsity.
“It’s been an incredibly tough day here,” said Spartans head coach Steve Jones. “Jeff was a special person who had a great relationship with every kid who came through our program.
“This hits home pretty hard. He was a pillar of the community.”
John Conway, who coached wrestling at Duanesburg, competed for Mont Pleasant High School, Niskayuna’s chief rival in the early-to-mid 1970s.
“It’s a real sad day,” said Conway, who placed fifth at the state tournament the same year Blatnick won the championship. “In the time I’ve been coaching and involved with wrestling, I really got to respect Jeff. The thing that most impressed me is how he would spend time working with kids.”
Nick Gwiazdowski won a pair of state championships under Bena at Duanesburg High School before an All-American finish for Binghamton University at this year’s NCAA DI Championships.
He credits Blatnick for helping his development into a national-class wrestler.
“Jeff never carried himself like he was an Olympic champion. He had time for everybody, whether it was a kid in his first day in the room or the best kid in the room,” said Gwiazdowski, who is currently a red-shirt sophomore after transferring to North Carolina State.
“For the elite wrestlers, he was a support system. He could help you prepare. But the thing I’ll remember most about Jeff is that you could talk to him about anything.
“Not too long ago, we were talking about cutting down trees. This is so hard to believe.”