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The King Pin

Blatnick won a gold medal in wrestling after battling cancer and then got to carry the U.S. flag at closing ceremony

August 01, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

Nearly every amateur athlete fantasizes about living the Olympic dream. So it was with wrestler Jeff Blatnick.

But 18 months shy of realizing that dream, Blatnick's goal became simply living. Period.

An All-American wrestler at Springfield College in Massachusetts, Blatnick lost his first shot at Olympic gold without ever putting his knee on a mat. He qualified for the Games, but it was 1980, the Games the U.S. boycotted because of the invasion of Afghanistan by the then-Soviet Union.

Blatnick didn't let the disappointment weigh on his massive shoulders.

"I knew I'd be back," Blatnick, now 46, said from his Burnt Hills home in upstate New York. "I hadn't peaked yet. For me, the future was wide open."

But that future soon turned cloudy. In 1982, while training in North Dakota, Blatnick found a bump on his neck. And then more bumps.

He was diagnosed in July of that year with Hodgkin's disease, cancer of the lymphatic system. Blatnick had his spleen and appendix removed and underwent radiation treatment

"I put wrestling aside and focused on my health," Blatnick said. "I just wanted to live my life at that point. I had concerns about the radiation. Would I turn green and become the Hulk? That's not bad if you are a comic-book character, but I was a wrestler. The hardest thing was not knowing what would happen. But I never lost sight of 1984."

By November 1982, Blatnick was told his disease was in remission. He returned to North Dakota, resumed training and entered the Bison Open. But he quickly realized he was moving too quickly.

"I didn't feel the same physical presence," he said. "I hadn't been on a mat in a while and I threw myself back into it too fast. When you are learning how to swim, you don't just go to the Arctic and jump in. I couldn't just pick up as if nothing had happened, because something had happened."

Eventually Blatnick regained his form, qualified again for the Olympics and, this time, made it to the Games.

On Aug. 2 at the Anaheim Convention Center, Blatnick won a gold medal in the super-heavyweight division of the Greco-Roman competition.

Having already overcome the toughest obstacle to Olympic gold 18 months earlier, Blatnick found himself possibly stymied again when he lost his second-round match. Having beaten Yugoslavia's Refik Memisevic in the first round, Blatnick was beaten by Greece's George Pozidis.

But when Memisevic subsequently defeated Pozidis, the tiebreaking procedure put Blatnick in the gold-medal round against Sweden's Thomas Johansson. At 248 pounds, Blatnick was facing an opponent 27 pounds heavier, but Blatnick emerged the winner, 2-0.

When it was over, Blatnick dropped to his knees. "I just looked up," he recalled, "and said, 'Thank you.' Everything worked out the way it was supposed to. I couldn't believe it. All the pain and effort was worth the end result."

As he stood on the victory stand, tears streaming down his cheeks, Blatnick said, "I'm a happy dude."

There were tears for his brother Dave, who had been killed in a motorcycle accident seven years earlier.

And there were, of course, tears over Blatnick's incredible journey from cancer ward to victory stand. It was a solitary journey, one he chose to take in relative silence. He didn't tell anyone about his cancer for a while, not even his parents.

"I was determined to keep the lid on it," Blatnick said. "I didn't need to hear people crying that I was going to die. I wasn't in denial. I was just trying to keep going on in life. I felt that people being compassionate would bring up all their fears of what I might be going through. I didn't need to hear that. I knew what I was going through. I wanted to stay focused on wrestling. I wanted to talk about wrestling, not cancer."

Blatnick finally shared his secret with a local reporter near his New York home before departing for L.A.

"By that time, I had completed most of my training," he said. "Why not tell all? Who the heck cared by then?"

He soon found out. Once his story become known at the Olympics, he was a media darling and was selected to carry his country's flag into the Coliseum for the closing ceremony.

"To this day, after 20 years," Blatnick said, "people come up to me and say, 'Oh, you are the cancer guy. It was so motivating to me.' "

Blatnick wasn't free of cancer, as it turned out. A year after the Olympics, it came back in the abdominal area. He underwent chemotherapy and has had no further occurrences. Today, he is a motivational speaker and works with young wrestlers at high schools and clinics and athletes in the Special Olympics.

For Blatnick, his medical struggles are best summed up in a cartoon he has kept for years. It shows a dragon relaxing in front of the remains of a suit of armor, picking his teeth with a jousting stick. Underneath, it says, "Sometimes, the dragon wins."

Said Blatnick: "I'm the white knight going after the cancer dragon. Sometimes, you just have to fight harder."

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