Olympian Jeff Blatnick Didn't Let Cancer Turn His World Upside Down

updated 05/05/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jeff Blatnick was in high gear. After scoring a dramatic victory over Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph system, he had battled back into shape and memorably won a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. An instant celebrity, he began logging more than 100,000 air miles a year as he crisscrossed the country drumming home his message that "you can help determine your own ends by the attitude you take. You don't have to be an Olympic champion to beat cancer."

"I was doing my thing," he says, "concentrating on business and fun. I had no concern about my health."

Then one night last July, after addressing a group of IBM executives in Owego, N.Y., Blatnick doubled over with severe stomach cramps. He chalked it up to some suspect clam chowder he had eaten, but two weeks later he was lying in bed in a New York hotel room when he felt a twinge in his upper right groin. He ran his fingers over the spot and felt a lump. "I went cold all over," he says. "I didn't want to admit it, but I knew I had it again."

When Blatnick had beaten Thomas Johansson of Sweden 2-0 to become only the second American to win a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling (the first had been won the night before), he thought he had finished the toughest battle he would ever have to fight. In a moment that moved television audiences around the world, the 6'2", 248-pound super heavyweight sank to his knees, crossed himself and burst into tears. "I'm one happy dude," he sobbingly told a TV interviewer.

Those ecstatic days seemed far away when Blatnick limped out of St. Clare's Hospital in Schenectady early last August after having the new-found lump biopsied. He went home to the nearby village of Niskayuna, where he lives with his parents. Back in 1977, Jeff's older brother David, an Air Force enlisted man stationed in Arizona, had been killed in a motorcycle crash. Ever since, Jeff had done his best to spare his parents any worry.

When he first got home, Blatnick tried to hide the biopsy from his parents. "But I was walking around hunched over like I'd had a hernia operation," he admits, "so I had to tell them." The biopsy was performed on a Wednesday. On Friday, Blatnick played golf with a friend. As a concession to the stitches in his groin, he played nine holes instead of 18. He was back home that afternoon when his oncologist, Dr. Stewart Silvers, called to say that the lump was malignant. The Hodgkin's had returned.

Blatnick sat down heavily and cried. He stanched his tears, but for half an hour could not stop sweating. "That's how much churning was going on inside," he said.

The treatment Dr. Silvers recommended was chemotherapy. For a long time, Blatnick, 28, had suffered from a certain "guilt trip." He was paid $4,000-$4,500 for his appearances, and though he was scrupulous about making an equal number of charity appearances for the American Cancer Society and the Leukemia Society of America, he felt, "I made money off of cancer. Is that right?"

Moreover his guilt was spurred by a feeling that he had gotten off relatively easy the first time around. Blatnick remembered what Dr. Silvers had said to soften the blow when Hodgkin's was discovered in a lymph node in his neck in 1982: "If you have to get cancer, this is the one to get." For a case caught as early as Blatnick's had been, a five-year remission rate of 90 to 95 percent could be expected. As a precaution, Blatnick's spleen had been removed (Hodgkin's often migrates to the spleen), leaving him with a 14-inch vertical scar on his abdomen. Still, he was back at work at his construction job two weeks later.

The primary treatment had been radiation. It had made his throat scratchy and his neck and chest feel deeply sunburned, but it was over after 23 daily sessions. "The treatment felt no different than an X ray," he says. "Chest, flip over, back. That's it. It was a breeze."

Chemotherapy would be a sterner test—also a longer one, continuing for six cycles of 28 days each. He started last September, visiting his brother's grave and saying a prayer in a nearby church. As he had the first time around, Blatnick kept his ordeal a secret from all but his parents and a few friends. "If people didn't know," he explains, "they didn't treat me different." A cheery "How's it going, Jeff?" did more for the wrestler's morale than a hand gently touching his arm and a hushed, "Jeff, how do you feel?"

"If you get a hundred 'How do you feels?' in one day, you can't help but have cancer keep popping up in your mind," he says.

At first Blatnick felt strong enough to play touch football weekly with friends he visited in Chicopee, Mass., but chemotherapy attacks not only cancer cells but other fast-reproducing cells in the body, such as those that line the digestive tract. Finding himself constipated from the intravenous injections he received on the first and eighth day of each cycle, Blatnick began stoically shoveling down oatmeal for breakfast. Though he felt a burning sensation when the chemicals entered his body, he vowed "not to get sick, even if I had to put tape over my mouth."

He didn't need the tape. In fact, marvels Dr. Silvers, "He ate pizza! I said, 'You're crazy,' but he didn't throw it up. He wanted to receive the full dose at all times, and we didn't deviate one bit from that." Blatnick's message for his fellow patients: "If you do get sick it's nothing to be ashamed of. It's just that you don't have to get sick."

The treatment did wear down Blatnick's strength, forcing him by New Year's to give up wrestling practice, running and—his favorite—basketball. Dizzy after one session, he fell down half a flight of stairs outside the apartment of his friend Chris Fulton, landing with a superheavyweight thud. Assuring his friends he was all right, Blatnick brushed himself off and left. "The only time he ever wants any sympathy is on the golf course," Fulton says.

To his last treatment, on Valentine's Day, Blatnick wore a tuxedo and brought champagne. "I figured, how many days do these people work saving lives and always have to listen to negative stuff?" he explains. "It was a way of showing them how I felt about what they'd done for me."

Silvers had found the recurrence of the cancer "disappointing, but not unexpected. I would have been more worried if it was in an area we had already treated," he says. "The fact that it wasn't meant we could achieve another remission."

Their optimism was not misfounded. In late March a CAT scan showed that the tumor had receded and no other active cancer was evident in Blatnick's body. "I believe Jeff's in remission now," Silvers says. "I'd be hopeful he'd have a 70 to 75 percent chance of not relapsing, but it could be higher."

That is good enough for Blatnick. "We don't have that four-letter word 'cure' yet," he admits. "But I don't look at it as a cloud over my head. There's hope, and that's all I ask for."

Striving for physical perfection, many an Olympic athlete would have been devastated by a physical debility as serious as cancer. But Blatnick didn't have a Promethean self-image to lose. "I never had the perfect physique," he says. "I was always a mental wrestler, the hardworking type. The sport taught me that you make do with what you have."

Growing up in Niskayuna, the second of three boys, Blatnick was "a fat little kid," nicknamed Blob. "People didn't think I was capable of things," he recalls, "but I always felt I could do what other people could do."

When Blatnick's friends went out for cross-country in 10th grade, Jeff went out too. At 5'11" and 205 pounds, "obviously I wasn't built for cross-country," he admits. "But I stuck out the season, and I think I turned a lot of heads." One who noticed was wrestling coach Joseph Bena, who had a spot for a heavyweight.

"I got pinned my first time and cost the team the match," Blatnick recalls, "but Coach Bena kept saying 'intestinal fortitude.' Later in the year I won by a fall, winning the match for the team, and suddenly I could feel the respect coming." The next season the burgeoning heavyweight went 24-5. Senior year he was 33-0 and state champion. "I went from Blob to Battleship," Blatnick says.

Blatnick prides himself on his underdog résumé. At Springfield College in Springfield, Mass.—a small school that had no athletic scholarships—he switched from freestyle to Greco-Roman wrestling, an upright style in which Americans had never excelled.

Blatnick meant to prove himself in Los Angeles when, in 1982, everything derailed. One day after a workout he felt "a twinge" in his neck, "like rubber bands snapping." On the day before his 25th birthday, he learned that the lump was Hodgkin's.

For years he had given up his summers to "work my ass off" in wrestling camp. While friends earned money in summer jobs or traveled, Blatnick earned mat burns. He prided himself on the hard work, and when Dr. Silvers outlined the cancer treatments, Blatnick felt right at home. "I took it like a training camp," he says. He often repeated to himself the maxim of his college coach, Doug Parker: "If you can win in adversity, you can win anywhere."

Jeff had gotten his first lessons in adversity from his brother David. As a boy, David, two years older, had pushed Jeff around. To Jeff, however, "it just served to make me tougher." Despite their early rivalry the boys grew close. In high school, when Jeff felt his parents "totally didn't understand" his devotion to wrestling, David attended all his brother's matches. David's funeral was held the day before Jeff was to leave for his first international match in Las Vegas. Afterward, Blatnick says, "my parents said, 'Go. It's what he would have wanted and what we want.' It was the first time I felt my parents really did respect what I was doing." When, in early 1983, tests showed a remission of the Hodgkin's after the splenectomy and radiation treatments, Blatnick rushed back into competition but withdrew in exhaustion and then got the flu. He slowed down, failed to make the national team in 1983 but paced himself so that he was ready for the Olympic trials in June 1984.

Before his gold medal match, Blatnick remembers, "My mother kissed me and said, 'Do it for Dave.' It had a tremendous calming effect on me. I always dreamed I would do something for him, and that wound up being it."

Two wrestling friends from back home, Shawn Sheldon and Andy Seras, were in the arena cheering during that final match. When Blatnick got the upper hand in the closing seconds, they began to scream, "Fatty's going to win!" Reverence is something Blatnick doesn't ask of his friends. The Olympic champion says he wants to be treated "just like another human being," and his friends gladly oblige, kidding the ex-Blob about his girth.

Nor does he think that beating cancer twice is so extraordinary. "I'm not superhuman," he says. "I think people give up because they can't have what they want. But if you can accept making a sacrifice, you can still reach your goals." In March, for example, Blatnick could hardly walk up a flight of stairs without huffing and puffing—the cumulative effect of the chemo. He started walking, slowly increasing the distance to six miles. "People say, 'What kind of a workout is that?' " he says. "But walking burns just as many calories as running, you just don't have the same training effect."

As a spokesman, Blatnick feels more legitimate now. "Having been through chemo I'm more of a veteran," he says. "I paid some dues." He realizes he is still lucky. "I'm not a terminal patient, and I can't say what that feels like," he acknowledges. "I can only offer an attitude I think is helpful."

Blatnick has few illusions. "I'm not the best wrestler this country has produced," he observes. "I didn't make the media because I was a gold medalist. I made the media because I was a former cancer patient."

He would like to regain competitive form. But if he doesn't, he will happily move on to his long-range goal, coaching. "If I never win another match," he says, "judge me by the sweat on my brow and the smile on my face."

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