October 23, 2008
Speaker tells Homer students to keep improving
1984 Olympic gold medal winner Jeff Blatnick speaks to intermediate school students
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Olympian Jeff Blatnick talks about his life experiences Wednesday while giving a motivational talk at Homer Intermediate School. Blatnick won the gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
HOMER — Many sports fans know wrestling legend Jeff Blatnick as a gold medal winner in Greco Roman wrestling in the 1984 Olympics.
But Blatnick, 51, who now calls the medal “a piece of my past,” has since made a career of inspiring others to overcome adversity.
Last night Blatnick, a Schenectady native, spoke to students at Homer Intermediate School. The audience included wrestlers from Homer Junior High School and Homer High School and their parents, as well as a SUNY Cortland wrestler.
Two years before winning his gold medal in the 1984 games in Los Angeles, Blatnick was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of cancer that affects the spleen and lymph nodes. An underlying message in the story that Blatnick told Homer students was how to overcome great challenges, such as cancer.
Blatnick first reflected on his experience as a “pudgy kid” who warmed the bench on his high school football team and then joined the cross-country team.
He described a cross-country meet in which he was humiliated as 2,000 people cheered for him when he crossed the finish line in last place. As he moped in the locker room afterward, his coach showed him a stopwatch, which revealed that he had finished with his best time ever.
Blatnick said that experience taught him that the truest measure of success in sports is not winning, but improving.
“What do you practice for? What do you train for? To improve,” he told the audience.
Blatnick joined his high school wrestling team as a sophomore, and he steadily improved. After wrestling at Springfield College in Massachusetts, he was invited by professional wrestlers to train for Greco-Roman wrestling with them in Fargo, N.D., he said.
Blatnick qualified for the 1980 Olympics, but when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the United States government boycotted the Olympic games, and he was unable to compete.
A couple of years later, Blatnick faced his greatest challenge as he was diagnosed with cancer. He had his spleen removed and underwent daily radiation treatment.
After the cancer went into remission, Blatnick began competing again. But his ability had declined, and he lost to opponents he used to handle easily.
He told the Homer crowd how it motivated _him when he heard a spectator at his match say, “Isn’t it too bad what happened to him when he got cancer.”
Blatnick defeated Tomas Johansson of Sweden in the 1984 Olympics to win the gold medal, and his teammates chose him to carry the American flag during the closing ceremony.
Since then, Blatnick has been a motivational speaker, wrestling coach and innovator and advocate for professional mixed martial arts competition.
He said he became a motivation speaker after people constantly asked him about his story following his Olympic victory.
“I figured out pretty quickly it would be nice if I had a message for these people,” Blatnick said.
He said he speaks mainly for corporations, which are often looking to provide an inspiring message for employees.
Blatnick said he helped to create the rules for mixed martial arts and coined the name. He worked as a commentator for the Ultimate Fighting Championship from 1994 to 2001. He is currently advocating for the state Legislature to legalize mixed martial arts as a professional sport in New York. He said it is legal in 40 states.
Blatnick coaches wrestling at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School outside of Schenectady.
After the speech, Blatnick sat down to speak with Brian Borst, a freshman on the SUNY Cortland wrestling team.
Borst said Blatnick has coached him on the Journeymen Wrestling team in Albany during the off-season since he was in seventh grade.
Blatnick asked Borst if he was starting on SUNY Cortland’s team, and Borst replied that he was playing backup to a senior wrestler.
Blatnick told him that college wrestling is a different level from high school wrestling and takes adjusting.
“You’ll adapt. You’ll have no problem adapting, Brian,” Blatnick said.
Nick Petrie, an eighth-grader on the Homer Junior High wrestling team, said Blatnick’s message that winning is not everything and the importance of pushing oneself in training “sunk in quite a bit.”
Petrie said he enjoys wrestling because it allows him to compete aggressively but still be friends with his opponents before and after matches.
“It’s that experience of being their friend to not being their friend to being their friend again,” Petrie said.
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