Jeff Blatnick (’79), one of the most decorated athletes in the storied tradition of Springfield College, passed away Wednesday at the
age of 55, due to complications from heart surgery.
Blatnick was a two-time Division II national champion and three-time All-American at Springfield. Following his collegiate career, Blatnick overcame a battle with cancer and went on to win the gold medal in the Greco-Roman wrestling in the super heavyweight division at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
“On behalf on the entire Springfield College community, I wish to offer our heartfelt sympathy and support to Jeff’s family,” Springfield College President Richard B. Flynn said in a statement released by the school Wednesday evening. “We are deeply saddened to hear of his untimely passing. An Olympic wrestling gold medal winner, motivational speaker, cancer survivor, and devoted son, husband, and father, Jeff was a role model and an inspiration to so many people. Jeff is an important part of the history and legacy of Springfield College.”
Blatnick qualified for the Olympic team in 1980, however he did not compete, as the United States elected to boycott the Moscow games. Two years later, the Springfield graduate was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He went through treatment and the disease went into remission, allowing him to resume his training and qualify for the 1984 games.
What made his victory at the Los Angeles games even more impressive was that he defeated Tomas Johansson of Sweden, who would later test positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Following the match, Blatnick, out of breath and exhausted from a grueling 2-0 victory, gave a heartfelt and teary-eyed interview.
“I’m a happy dude,” said Blatnick in the post-match interview.
Blatnick would carry the U.S. flag during the Closing Ceremony.
“There is no question that knowing Jeff made us all better people. He was truly an inspiration to all that knew him and a good friend to Springfield College athletics,” said Springfield College Director of Athletics Cathie Schweitzer in the press release.
Following his wrestling career, Blatnick would stay in the sport as a television commentator for ESPN and NBC, while being inducted as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1999.
Later in his life, Blatnick would branch out from wrestling and become a fixture in the evolution of mixed martial arts.
He served as a commissioner and commentator for UFC and helped establish rules for the sport known as the Mixed Martial Arts Council Manual. He also contributed to the growing popularity of MMA, fighting for more television exposure.
For all his accolades and recognition in not one, but two sports, Blatnick never forgot, or left, his Springfield College roots.
“He put Springfield College wrestling on the map,” said former Springfield wrestling coach Darryl Arroyo in a phone interview Wednesday night. “He loved wrestling and he loved Springfield College. He was always willing to give back.
“I knew him before he was an Olympic Gold Medalist and he never changed,” said Arroyo, who was a senior at Springfield when Blatnick won gold in 1984. “He was still the same all-around, great guy.”
Arroyo referenced a time when he and several teammates went to North Dakota for the National Championships, while Blatnick was a member of the North Dakota State coaching staff.
“He picked us up at the airport, drove us to the hotel,” said Arroyo. “He took care of us all weekend, even though he was there, coaching his team.”
Over the years, Blatnick continued to hold a strong bond with his former coach, Doug Parker.
Through the school, Parker has decided not to comment at this time, as he copes with the sudden loss.
“He was very close to Jeff,” said Arroyo. “When you lose someone younger like that, it’s almost like losing a son.”
As a coach, Parker stressed overcoming adversity as one of the keys to success. That advice stuck with Blatnick as he endured several bouts with cancer during the 1980s.
“Adversity can strike in many different ways,” said Blatnick in a 2008 article published in the Pride Sports Journal. “[Parker’s] favorite phrase was, ‘If you can win in adversity, you can win anywhere.’
“And I realized that things will go wrong, and when they do, are you going to let them take away focus from what it is that you’re there for?” he continued. “It’s one of those things where you can grin and bear it, or you can whine to no end, and I think that as you get older, you realize that whining is for kids who don’t know any better.”
The adversity overcame by Blatnick led to a career as a motivational speaker for a number of charities.
Along with Parker, the two SC wrestling legends are forever linked, not only for their success on the mats at Springfield College, but also for their recognition by the sport, as each were inducted into the NCAA Division II Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1997.
Blatnick received his honorary doctor of Humanics in 1987, the same year he was inducted into the Springfield College Athletic Hall of Fame.
Blatnick was the commencement speaker for the 2000 graduation and delivered the same message he had originally given during his 1987 Hall of Fame speech:
“You can educate the mind, you can train the body, but without spirit you have nothing. Because spirit makes possible what is seemingly impossible.”