"Olympic Level Good": Friends Remember Jeff Blatnick

National Wrestling Hall of Fame member and Olympic Gold Medalist Jeff Blatnick’s passing was a shock to the wrestling community.  It’s a story that has been covered by both the wrestling and mainstream media as many have articulated his numerous and signficant accomplishments both on and off the mat.

For some additional perspectives, New York Wrestling News asked a few people who knew Jeff Blatnick to provide reflections on the impact he had on their lives.  We’ll let them tell more of the story of Jeff Blatnick.

 

Kyle Dake, Three-time NCAA Champion at Cornell

“When I first met Coach Blatnick, I found out pretty quickly that he was one of the friendliest and most incredible people to be around.  What I really remember is how he was full of wisdom.  I always took to heart what he said, whether it was about wrestling or life in general because it was always wise.

He called me “The Ferret” because when we first met I was a 98-pound freshman who was all over the place with so much energy.  As I got bigger, he tried to think of another nickname, but Ferret stuck.  The years I wrestled at Fargo, Coach Blatnick was there.  He was my second coach with Scott Green.  I always had complete trust in him.  I always felt good when he was in my corner because he was a commanding presence who was so knowledgeable about the sport.

After my freshman year in college I went to Fargo to be a team coach and I got to spend time with him. Not as a wrestler and a coach, but as a friend. We had some great conversations about wrestling and life and it was a really special time that I’ll never forget. We had a relationship where we were really strongly connected even though we didn’t see each other that much. I’m still in disbelief that he’s gone.  I appreciated him and looked up to him so much as a person.”

 

Nick Gwiazdowski, NCAA All-American (now at North Carolina State)

“In eighth grade when I started Freestyle and Greco, Jeff Blatnick started coaching me.  The thing he helped me with the most was my approach to wrestling.  Wrestling is such an exciting sport and it’s easy to get really pumped up and have a lot of emotion.  He taught me how to bring the emotion down, visualize and relax and get prepared for matches.  He simplified things for me and a lot of the little things he taught me, I still do in my matches today.

More important, he was someone I liked being around.  You could travel to a tournament with him and never talk about wrestling.  He was someone you could always talk to about anything and he would be there for you.  People would introduce him as an Olympic champion, but he would never introduce himself like that.  He was so humble.  He never really mentioned the things he accomplished.  It was all about helping you get better at wrestling or helping you in some other way.  He will be missed by a lot of people.  It will be very different without him.”

 

Alexis Porter, Two-Time Freestyle National Champion

“I remember when I first met him, at a small peewee tournament.  I hadn’t been wrestling for more than a few months.  He saw something in me that day that not a lot of people had seen and he became my coach.  I knew he was a legend who was courageous and inspirational but he didn’t focus on his own story.  He was focused on making everyone in our club the best wrestler they could be and help them achieve the biggest goals possible.

My first year at Fargo, I lost in the consolation finals.  I was upset and angry. He told me I had nothing to be ashamed of and that next year I would be on top of the podium.  He said I had bigger things to look forward to.  Sure enough, the next year, he was in my corner when I won my first national title.  He was one of the best wrestlers and coaches I’ve seen and an even better man.  I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to know him and to call him my coach.”

 

Craig Vitagliano, Team New York Freestyle Coach (Ascend Wrestling)

“I knew about Jeff Blatnick growing up.  He was one of the first wrestlers I saw on the Olympic level and I remember sitting and watching the gold medal match.  I’d heard about all the adversity he had to overcome and the way he focused and won the Olympic gold was inspiring for me. It was an amazing moment in Olympic history.

Fast forward to the past couple of years when I got to know Jeff on the Freestyle circuit.  Our club battled Journeymen a number of times and he was always respectful, friendly and approachable.  There was no arrogance despite all he accomplished.  He was also light hearted with a great sense of humor.  He was behind a big joke played on me at Fargo this year when I was told that I failed my bronze certification test and was going to be removed from the event.  Jeff was the leader of it and had me going for about 20 minutes.  He was a great man and a great ambassador and it’s a huge loss.”

 

Dylan Palacio, High School National Champion and Cornell Recruit

“Even when I was unsuccessful, [Blatnick] believed in me.  He saw some potential and kept pushing me to achieve what he thought I was capable of.  It’s really rare to find someone so genuine, who just wants you to be better and achieve great things.  He truly cared about the sport and the people in it. My biggest regret is that I never told him how much of an impact he had on me. I really want to do things now to make sure he looks down and says, ‘I was right about that kid.’ I could go on for days about all the things he’s accomplished but what really sticks with me is how sincere he was about wanting to see kids succeed.”

 

Mike Kelley, Journeymen Wrestling

“He always went out of his way to help the kids.  There was a tournament in Connecticut that was over two hours away and bunch of kids were supposed to go.  Then kids started dropping out and only two were left.  A lot of coaches would have decided not to go with only two kids.  But he insisted on going. That’s the kind of guy he was.  If he said he was going to do something, he did it. He always took the time.

Last year at Freestyle states, Nick [Kelley, Mike’s son and Fargo All-American] had an injury to his mouth and it got hit again and was pretty bad.  [Blatnick] went around the place asking everyone if they had a facemask for Nick to use.  He didn’t stop until he found one.  He looked out for everyone.  It wasn’t just successful wrestlers.  It didn’t matter who it was.  If it was first-year kids making all kinds of mistakes, he went out of his way to spend time with them.  He went the extra mile.

He was a great coach. He had a calming effect.  Nick said no matter how loud it was, he could always hear [Blatnick] and his instructions even though he didn’t scream.  There was just something about him.  He was a great guy that will be missed.”

 

Frank Popolizio

“Jeff was an enormous part of our organization at Journeymen Wrestling and the wrestling community as a whole.  Above all, Jeff was a gentleman and an ambassador.  A lot of people look at him as a wrestling guy, but he was a lot more than that. He was a major ambassador for the disabled.  He played a big role in the Special Olympics.  He was involved in cancer-related causes.  It seemed like he was always at fundraising events for cancer and helping to raise awareness.

He was a tremendous worker on top of it all.  He spent a lot of time in the wrestling room trying to help the kids.  He was in charge of our Freestyle program.  Freestyle ends in July and so did his obligations and responsibilities to being there for the kids.  But he’d be there in August and September and October.  I’d tell him he didn’t have to be there, but he wanted to be.  That’s the kind of guy he was.  He cared tremendously about the kids and they really responded to him.

The angle that’s not being covered is an ability that Jeff had as maybe the best, most effective wrestling diplomat.  He was in charge of things that were very political, including the head of USA Wrestling New York.  It’s a difficult position working with many different groups and personalities, but he was able to navigate through it with ease.  I don’t think it was easy, but he made it look easy.  He was really good at it – Olympic level good.  We were all better off for the work he did.

We lost a giant of a guy figuratively and literally.  It’s an enormous void on so many levels and I’m not sure you can ever truly fill it.”

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We’ll end with an inspiring video of Jeff Blatnick at the 1984 Olympic Games, winning his gold medal and reacting afterwards.  Popolizio said watching it gave him goose bumps and it did the same for us.  RIP, Jeff Blatnick, you will be missed.

Columbia's Wyatt Baker Ready for the International Stage at the Junior World Championships

Photo courtesy of Columbia University Athletics

When Columbia sophomore Wyatt Baker defeated Parker Betts in the 120 kg title bout of the Greco Roman Junior World Team Trials in May, he made the United States team that will travel to Thailand this week to compete against the best competition from all over the globe.

But his victory did more than that.

It got rid of a feeling he’d been carrying around with him for over a month after losing to Betts on his way to third place at the FILA Juniors in Wisconsin.

“When I lose, I just get sick to my stomach and it doesn’t go away until I redeem myself against that person or someone better,” Baker said.  “I’m really, really competitive and I hate losing so much.  I told myself I definitely wasn’t going to lose to the kid who beat me a few weeks before, even though he beat me pretty badly.”

He was right.  Baker got his redemption against Betts to make the World Team, winning straight bouts, 1-0, 1-1 and 1-0, 0-4, 1-0.

So, what was the difference?

For starters, Baker learned a lot more about Greco in the time between the two tournaments.  He said he didn’t do much in that style while at Servite High in California, where he played three sports and spent more time on football than he did on the mat.

In fact, his Greco experience in high school wasn’t what he categorized as successful.

“I was on a Junior Duals team,” he said.  “I think I lost almost every match. I had no idea what I was doing.  I was basically wrestling folkstyle.  At FILA Juniors, when I lost in freestyle, I knew exactly what I did wrong, but when I lost in Greco, I didn’t really know what to fix.  It lit a fire under me.  I was uncomfortable in some throwing positions during the college season and I thought if I focused on Greco, it would help me in my college career too.”

So Baker got to work, training with Columbia head coach Carl Fronhofer.

“[Fronhofer] did a lot of Greco and he was super helpful,” Baker said. “He knew I was really new to it and he didn’t get frustrated with me at all.  We just worked on the basics and things I would be good at based on my strengths.”

Baker further prepared by spending time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he interacted with many experienced Greco competitors.

“I had a lot of help from resident athlete Rob Smith, who worked with me everyday.  Slowly, little by little, I caught on to Greco,” he said.  “I also had some of the Olympians helping me and the coaches there were great.”

The efforts paid off with his Junior World Team Trials title.  And he followed that by briefly going home to California before returning to Colorado Springs for the remainder of the summer.

“It’s been eye opening to see what the next level looks like and what you need to do to get there,” he said.  “I know now that’s what I want.  I was here [Colorado Springs] almost the whole summer, except for a few days back in New York.”

Baker returned to the Empire State to make sure everything was in place for the fall semester of his sophomore year.

He expects to be the starter at 285 for the Lions in 2012-13 after backing up NCAA qualifier Kevin Lester in his debut campaign.  Baker compiled a 13-5 record with nine bonus point victories as a freshman.  He won the New York States B title at heavyweight and also placed in the Freshman/Sophomore division at the Michigan State Open.

“I felt the difference between high school and college wrestling was huge,” he said. “You go from the top of the totem pole in high school to the bottom where you’re getting beaten up every day.  The first year is really a character builder.  You have to have the mentality to say, ‘I’m going to keep getting better and if he’s going to beat me, he’ll have to work for every single point’.  Kevin [Lester] and I would go at it everyday and he taught me a lot.  As the season went on, I started believing a lot more.”

His belief has continued to grow, especially with his success in the college offseason.

“My goal is to be an All-American next year,” he said.  “I feel like the Ivies are wide open right now at my weight and I know that the EIWA has some good heavyweights, but I think I can be at that caliber if I stay hungry and humble.”

Helping him do that is assistant coach Hudson Taylor, a multiple-time All-American at Maryland.

“Hudson beats me down pretty much every day and it’s a really good situation,” he said. “I’m used to heavyweight wrestling – matching strength for strength.  But Hudson is goofy and he’s like Gumby.  It’s really different.  He’s teaching me so much and what’s great is that every day we pick one thing to work on when we go live.  It makes things so much more tangible and makes me so much better.  I’m more and more prepared for the college season.”

The California native was also prepared for the East Coast weather when he arrived to college.  When he was on a trip to visit the Columbia campus as a high schooler, he experienced a severe blizzard.  So when he decided to attend the Ivy League institution, he got himself ready.

“I spent my summer earnings on Arctic certified jackets and snowboots and everything like that,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone was really happy that last winter wasn’t terribly cold, but I was a little disappointed I didn’t get to use the things I bought.”

Still, there’s little else that has disappointed him about his time in New York City.

“California is a lot more laid back, but the people in New York are really good people,” he said. “Being in this city is really awesome.  And the team and the coaches are great.  I think what really put things over the top for me was the alumni support we have at Columbia.  It’s amazing.”

While he loves New York, he excited to be heading to Thailand for the September 4-9 FILA Junior World Championships.  He’s hoping to see some of the country, but is focused first on what he needs to do on the mat.

“I’ve never been to any part of Asia before and I think we’ll have fun when the wrestling is done.  But we’re there for business and to win.  The scenery doesn’t matter; all that matters is winning.  I’m itching for the competition and ready for the international stage for the first time to see how I stack up against the rest of the world.  It’s a huge honor to represent the United States. I feel really blessed.”