Jeff Blatnick, Olympic gold medalist, dies

Greco-Roman wrestling gold medalist Jeff Blatnick gestures during Greco-Roman wrestling gold medalist Jeff Blatnick gestures during ceremonies at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Blatnick, who overcame cancer to win a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1984 Summer Olympics, died of heart failure in Schenectady, N.Y., on Oct. 24, 2012 at age 55. Photo Credit: AP, 1984

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SCHENECTADY, N.Y. -- Jeff Blatnick, who overcame cancer to win a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1984 Summer Olympics and went on to a career as a sports commentator and motivational speaker, died Wednesday in New York state at age 55.

Officials at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, N.Y., said he died there of heart failure.

Blatnick was a high school state champion in suburban Albany in the mid-1970s and was a two-time Division II National champion and three-time Division II All-American at Springfield College in Massachusetts.

He qualified for the U.S. Olympic team and was a member of the 1980 squad that didn't compete because the U.S. boycotted that year's games in Moscow.

In 1982, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. He was treated and the disease went into remission before he won the gold as a super heavyweight in Los Angeles in 1984.

Blatnick was also a three-time Greco-Roman national champion and won eight Greco-Roman All-American awards, two World Cup medals and two Freestyle All-American honors.

USA Wrestling National Greco-Roman Coach Steve Fraser also won a gold medal at the 1984 games as a teammate of Blatnick. Fraser and Blatnick were the first two U.S. Greco-Roman wrestlers to ever win gold medals.

"I am devastated that Jeff Blatnick, who was a great Greco-Roman champion, has passed away," Fraser said. "I am stunned by it."

Fraser talked to Blatnick a few weeks ago about working to promote Greco-Roman wrestling.

"I am heartbroken," he said. "He has done so much for the sport as an athlete, an announcer, a leader and a spokesman. My prayers go out to his family."

Joe Bena, who coached Blatnick at Niskayuna High School, said he found himself in 1972 without a wrestler over 200 pounds.

"I went into the halls looking for a big kid," he said. Bena found Blatnick, a basketball player who initially said he didn't want to wrestle.

"Three years later, he was state champ," the longtime coach said.

Blatnick later returned to the Albany area and worked steadily with youngsters, Bena said, describing him as a "humble guy, down to earth ... he never boasted."

Bob McGuire, the athletic director at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School, recalled Blatnick asking if he could be a volunteer varsity wrestling coach at the school.

"What do you say when you hear that from an Olympic champion," he said Wednesday. "You open the door and say 'Come on in."'

Blatnick spent six years volunteering at the school.

"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," he said. "And Jeff Blatnick was that person."

Blatnick also was successful as a motivational speaker and television commentator. He was an NBC Olympic wrestling analyst in Seoul in 1988, Barcelona in 1992, and Atlanta in 1996 among other assignments, according to his website.

Blatnick also helped bring the sport of mixed martial arts to a growing audience. In the sport's early days in the mid to late 1990s, Blatnick served as a commentator for UFC 4 through 32. He was also commissioner of the UFC for a time during its pre-Zuffa history, worked to craft the rules of the sport and fought for it to be regulated and on pay-per-view at a time when cable providers were banning the "No Holds Barred" sport (as it was referred to and marketed back then). He later became a judge for MMA fights.

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