Jeff Blatnick dies at age 55

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 said he died 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, which did not compete because the U.S. boycotted that year's Games in Moscow.

In 1982, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was treated and the disease went into remission, and he was able to resume training and win the super heavyweight gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Blatnick, who had served as an analyst for ESPN, also was 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, who also won a gold medal at the 1984 Games, was a teammate of Blatnick's. 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 who weighed more than 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 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," McGuire 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.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.