“It was a good thing for him to do,” said Shell. “Sports can’t take away the tragedy, but it helped him to be there around people that were supportive of him.”
The rest of Blatnick’s family is also involved in the BH-BL sports community. Jeff’s wife, Lori, is a member of the BH-BL football and wrestling booster clubs, and his daughter, Niki, plays volleyball.
Blatnick’s own sports career took off when he joined Bena’s wrestling program at Niskayuna in 1972. Within three years, Blatnick won the state title in his weight class.
“He said he didn’t like wrestling (when first asked to join the team), but I was persistent and he came out,” said Bena. “Three years later, he was a state champion. That says a lot about his drive and determination.”
From Niskayuna, Blatnick went to Springfield College, where he won two NCAA Division II titles. He made the 1980 United States Olympic wrestling team, but he didn’t get the chance to go to Moscow when America boycotted the games.
Blatnick’s pursuit of an Olympic medal took another detour in 1982 when he was diagnosed with cancer – the first of two battles he would eventually wage against the disease. He pulled through the treatment and gained a spot on the U.S. team for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. There, he defeated Sweden’s Thomas Johansson 2-0 in the finals to become the second American to win an Olympic gold medal in Greco Roman wrestling.
Bena was present for Blatnick’s golden moment.
“That was pretty exciting to see one of my former wrestlers standing up there (on the podium) as they raised flag,” said Bena.
The battles Blatnick waged against cancer in 1982 and 1985 created a desire within him to help others going through it. He spoke at numerous fundraisers, including last month’s Shellstrong event in Burnt Hills – a charity created when Matt Shell’s son, Jacob, battled through an aggressive form of cancer several years ago.