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JEFF BLATNICK: 1957-2012 ‘We all lost a good friend’

By Gary Abbott Jeff Blatnick.

I had a tough day when I heard we had lost our good friend

Blatnick died following complications from heart surgery on Oct. 24 in his native New York. He was 55. Jeff Blatnick was not just a good friend to me, but he was a good friend to wrestling and he was a good friend to the people who are in wrestling. It was not just about what he did. It was all about who he was.

Most people know the Jeff Blatnick story, at least some of it.

Jeff was one of the few people in wrestling who transcended our sport and was important in the general public. Dan Gable transcended wrestling when he won his 1972 Olympic gold medal with dominance and the most amazing work ethic on earth.

Rulon Gardner transcended wrestling when the Wyoming farm boy beat the unbeatable Olympic superstar Alexander Kareline and charmed the world. Jeff Blatnick transcended wrestling when he beat cancer, won an Olympic gold medal in Los Angeles in 1984, cried during his interview, carried the U.S. flag in the Closing Ceremonies and inspired everybody. People my age remember watching Blatnick winning his Olympic title, and his interview with Russ Hellickson where he emotionally said “I’m a happy dude.” But after he was an Olympic champion, Jeff never left wrestling. He loved wrestling and wrestling people. He became a television commentator at the Olympics and at the NCAA Championships. He joined USA Wrestling, serving on its Board and taking the position as New York’s state chairperson. He stayed involved and continued to make a difference all the way until this morning when we lost him.

I was a bit shaken up at work when the media started to call, and they asked me about a statement about Jeff from USA Wrestling. I told the reporters that I would talk about Jeff both personally and for the organization. I could not just give an offi- cial statement about Jeff. I had to tell about Jeff the person. I hope I did a good job.

I am OK with what I told the Saratogian, a newspaper in Jeff’s community in upstate New York. This is something that will be read by his friends and family back home. This is what they printed and I meant every word of it: “Jeff was a giant in wrestling and the Olympic family. For many people that knew Jeff, even beyond the work he put into wrestling, this is a sad day. We hope the world understands the massive contributions he made to society.

“He had something special about him. Part of that was god- given, but he had a wonderful heart and a love of life.” There are many people who may have known Jeff better than me, and longer than me. However, I shared a life journey with Jeff Blatnick for 33 years through wrestling. I feel comfortable sharing some stories about my friend. I first met Jeff, probably in early 1979, when I was a freshman wrestler at Boston University and he was a senior wrestling at Springfield. At the time, Jeff Blatnick was the absolute best wrestler in New England college wrestling, regardless of what Division he wrestled in (Springfield was D-2 at the time). We always wrestled Springfield in a dual meet each year and saw

Jeff Blatnick (right) provided commentary for NBC during the Beat the Streets event this year in New York City. He is shown with announcer Jason Knapp. Larry Slater photo.

them at many open tournaments. I remember Jeff telling me that he was frustrated during his senior year. He said that the teams on Springfield’s schedule would not put their wrestler out to compete against him. It was always the last match and usually the meet was already deter- mined, and they didn’t want their kid to get defeated badly. BU might have been one of those schools that threw in the towel against him. He was that good. Jeff was frustrated that he was not getting enough competi- tion to get ready for the nationals. He did all right anyway, win- ning the Div. II meet for the second time and placing third in the 1979 NCAA Div. I National Championships. His only loss that year was to Doctor Death Steve Williams of Oklahoma, 6-5 in the quarterfinals. Jeff ended up wrestling back to third, and Williams ended up in sixth. We took pride in Jeff doing so well from a New England school, and I liked him from the time I met him and never looked back. My professional career started with the magazine Wrestling Masters in 1983, so I was a journalist covering the sport when Jeff won his Olympic gold medal. I was not blessed to go to the LA Games, but watched every minute and covered his career throughout the process. I ran into Jeff often, and we talked a lot. We shared something, both being from New York and both being from a New England college. Most people don’t know that Jeff beat cancer twice. After the 1984 Olympics, there was a time when Jeff’s cancer stopped being in remission and he got sick again. He went after it again Continued on page 39

19 USA Wrestler

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