Jeff Blatnick overcame cancer to win Olympic Gold

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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In his motivational speeches, Jeff Blatnick would tell fellow cancer victims, "To shed tears is fine, but not to pity yourself."

Fitting words for Blatnick's epitaph. The Olympic wrestling champion, who died of heart failure at 55 on Wednesday, had wept profusely during his most public moment -- when he produced a monumental upset victory in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics Greco-Roman super heavyweight gold medal match.

Overcome with relief and joy, not quite two years past a diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease, he was "one happy dude," he said. And it was the first time he had cried since his older brother died in a car accident seven years earlier.

Months after Blatnick's L.A. triumph, a second, unrelated cancer was detected, requiring another 28 sessions of chemotherapy. Yet he skipped the pity and any suggestion that a gold medalist had an inside track against disease.

"You don't have to be an Olympic champion to beat cancer," Blatnick said. But he was and he did, And the irony was that, after Los Angeles, Blatnick found himself earning a living by giving public speeches as The Olympic Champion Who Beat Cancer.

In fact, he wasn't always comfortable with sharing his ordeal with the world. "When I went through my [second] bout of cancer," he said shortly before his wrestling retirement in 1988, "I hid from everyone. I thought it wasn't fair to my parents, or to me, that people wanted to talk to me."

Ultimately, though, he went with his own advice: No pity. He wore a tuxedo to his last chemotherapy treatment and set about working as a TV wrestling commentator at three Olympics, and resumed motivational speaking.

In recent years, he was a volunteer wrestling coach in an upstate high school, near his Niskayuna birthplace, just outside Schenectady.

Blatnick hadn't intended to be a wrestler. He was playing basketball when the Niskayuna High wrestling coach, Joe Bena, went into the school halls "looking for a big kid," Bena told the Associated Press, and recruited Blatnick. Three years later, in 1975, Blatnick won a state championship and went on to be a three-time all-American at Springfield College in Massachusetts.

He made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that boycotted the Moscow Games over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan and, after surviving Hodgkin's, barely qualified for the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials, where he proceeded to shock the favorite in his weight class.

At the L.A. Olympics, he defeated gold medal favorite Refik Memisevic of Yugoslavia, lost to Greece's Panagiotis Pikilidis, yet advanced to the final when Memisevic beat Pikilidis. Blatnick's unlikely gold-medal victory came against Sweden's Tomas Johansson, who outweighed the 240-pound Blatnick by 35 pounds. (Johansson, furthermore, later was found to have cheated and was stripped of his silver medal for a positive steroid test.)

"I was going to be a coach," Blatnick later recalled of his plans after the Los Angeles Games. "I was praying for a $20,000-a-year physical education job. In fact, I almost left the [Olympic] village two days after I won, to drive a truck from Minnesota -- where I'd been training -- to New York for $600. I needed the money. And then all [these speaking requests] happened, and it turns out I have quite a gift for gab, and I enjoy sharing with people. So it just all worked out right."

It just didn't last nearly long enough.

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