A moment after winning his gold-medal match at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, Jeff Blatnick dropped to his knees on the mat in prayer and thanks.
Then, as his right arm was held aloft by the referee to signal his victory, his face was contorted in emotion and exhaustion and his eyes filled with tears.
After missing out on a chance to compete in the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games because of the U.S. boycott, and then battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma that was diagnosed in 1982, Blatnick had defeated Sweden’s Tomas Johansson, 2-0, to win the super heavyweight division and join teammate Steve Fraser as the first Americans to medal — let alone take gold — in Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling.
It was a moment of triumph for Blatnick, who was so overwhelmed by his feat that he could barely speak as he was interviewed live on national television in the minutes following his victory.
For Fraser, who was there to see his friend and teammate triumph that night at the Anaheim Convention Center, it was a landmark moment for the sport of Greco-Roman wrestling in the United States and for Blatnick, whom he recalled as a fierce competitor.
Fraser was stunned Wednesday when he learned of the death of his longtime friend.
Blatnick died Wednesday of complications from heart surgery at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, N.Y., according to The Record of Troy, N.Y. He was 55.
“I think his biggest strength was his toughness and his grit, his determination, his stubbornness,” Fraser said. “I think all that made him a successful wrestler.”
The news of Blatnick’s death came as a shock to the U.S. wrestling community. After retiring from competition, he continued to contribute to the sport as a coach, network TV commentator and administrator. And as an athlete, aside from his Olympic achievements and national Greco-Roman championships, he was a two-time NCAA Div. II national champion at Springfield College in Massachusetts and three-time All-American. In 1996 he was inducted as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
In addition, Blatnick worked as an ambassador with the U.S. Olympic Committee, did motivational speaking engagements and contributed to the growth of mixed martial arts in the United States by helping establish many of the rules and judging standards, as well as doing TV commentary.
“Jeff was a giant in wrestling and the Olympic family,” Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling’s director of communications and special projects, told The Record. “For many people that knew Jeff, even beyond the great work he put into wrestling, this is a sad day.”
Blatnick’s inspirational victory in 1984 — coming after he had radiation treatments and had to have his spleen and appendix removed because of his cancer — prompted the U.S. Olympic Team to elect him the flag bearer in the Closing Ceremony of the Los Angeles Games. That triumph, along with a second battle with cancer and his survival of a plane crash, were some of his motivational speaking topics in later years.
“He had something special about him,” Abbott told The Record. “Part of that was God-given, but he had a wonderful heart and a love of life.”
Said U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun: “Jeff was a legend in the sport of wrestling and a true champion who remained active in Olympic sport for the last 30-plus years. Whether it was youth coaching or participating in the USOC ambassador program prior to the London Games, Jeff was always willing to share his story and lend his considerable talents to growing the sport of wrestling and inspiring young men and women to always do their best.”
In recent years, Blatnick worked with kids in the Albany, N.Y., area where he grew up, and served as a volunteer varsity wrestling coach at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School in Burnt Hills, N.Y.
“When you’re talking about high school sports, you’re always looking for that special individual who will be a role model for a lot of different children,” the school’s athletic director, Bob McGuire, told the Associated Press. “And Jeff Blatnick was that person.”
Though he accomplished much in his life and impacted many, Blatnick will be most remembered for his Olympic victory.
The win helped open the door to Greco-Roman for many U.S. wrestlers, Fraser said.
“The fact he won the Olympics at a time when we had never done that was big,” said Fraser, USA Wrestling’s longtime national Greco-Roman coach. “So he was a pioneer in leading the way and showing other kids and people in the United States that we could win in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympic level.”
Since the breakthrough victories by Blatnick and Fraser in ’84, only American Rulon Gardner in 2000 has won Olympic gold. But Americans now have 13 total medals in the sport.
Olympic Greco-Roman silver medalist Matt Ghaffari was an alternate in freestyle wrestling in 1984 and often trained with Blatnick and another U.S. wrestling great, Bruce Baumgartner.
“Both of those guys used to beat me up pretty good,” Ghaffari said. “I always tell people that wrestling against Jeff and Bruce was like wrestling against (Russian champion Alexander Karelin).”
Not only did Blatnick help prepare Ghaffari on the mat, but also he helped by being an advisor.
“He would show me moves, even when he was working as a broadcaster at the Games, we would talk, but he also helped afterward with motivational speaking,” Ghaffari said.
The wrestling community is in mourning today, but takes solace in remembering the good times it had with Blatnick.
One thing Fraser always will remember is how emotional Blatnick was after his gold-medal match and during his post-match interview, when his sobs kept him from saying very much. In fact, Fraser said, it became something they often laughed about.
“For many years we always affectionately joked about a couple of his statements,” Fraser said. “One was, ‘I’m a happy dude,’ right after he won, he said that to the reporter as he was crying. He actually dropped down to his knees. He’d overcome a lot. … So yeah, it was a big moment for him and his country.”
Blatnick is survived his wife and two children.
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies. Freelance writer Amy Rosewater contributed to this report.