Jeff Blatnick, 1984 Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler and NCAA Division II mat champ at Springfield College, died Wednesday after complications from heart surgery in Schenectady, N.Y. He was 55 years old.
In addition to his on-the-mat accomplishments, Blatnick was widely known as a commentator for NCAA and Olympic wrestling broadcasts from 1988 through 2012, as well as a pioneering on-air personality for MMA (mixed martial arts) events. Blatnick also shared his wrestling knowledge as a coach, and, in fact, was coaching at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School in New York.
According to The Saratogian newspaper in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Blatnick died as a result of cardio-pulmonary arrest following heart surgery at Ellis Hospital.
Born in Niskayuna, N.Y. on July 26, 1957, Blatnick first made a name for himself on the wrestling mat at Niskayuna High School, where he won the New York state title in the heavyweight division in 1975. He then continued his mat career at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., where he won two NCAA D2 heavyweight titles. Back then, Div. II wrestling champs qualified to compete at the NCAA Div. I championships. Blatnick earned NCAA D1 All-American honors, placing sixth at the 1978 NCAAs and third in 1979.
Blatnick earned a place on two U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling teams. The 1980 squad did not compete because of the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics. However, Blatnick was able to compete at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where he won the gold medal in superheavyweight competition, joining Steve Fraser as the first two U.S. wrestlers to claim gold in Olympic competition. Blatnick carried the flag for the U.S. at the Closing Ceremonies at the 1984 Olympics.
Blatnick’s Olympic glory is even more impressive, given that only two years earlier, he had battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer, and had his spleen and appendix removed.
After winning the gold, Blatnick became a motivational speaker, and served a number of organizations, including USA Wrestling. He was welcomed as a Distinguished Member of the Natonal Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla. in 1999.
In addition, Blatnick helped put MMA on the map, serving as a commentator for every UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships) from the beginning in 1994 through 2001. He also was instrumental in helping to establish rules for the sport, and, in fact, was licensed as an MMA judge and referee in New Jersey.
“Jeff was a giant in wrestling and the Olympic family,” said Gary Abbott of USA Wrestling. “For many people that knew Jeff, even beyond the great work he put into wrestling, this is a sad day. We hope the world understands the massive contributions he made to society.”
“I am stunned,” said USA Wrestling Greco-Roman coach Steve Fraser. “I talked to him just a few weeks ago, about his work with our state association in New York and how we can promote Greco-Roman wrestling. I am heartbroken. 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.”
Jeff Blatnick is survived by a wife and two children.
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