DURHAM, N.C. -- Jeff Blatnick still cries on occasion.
"There's all kinds of reasons to cry," Blatnick said with a slight smile. "But nothing on the scope of '84."
The 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the super heavyweight division of Greco-Roman wrestling, this 255-pound man became an Olympic hero by crying like a boy on national television. The joy he displayed after his victory brought tears to the eyes of people all over the country. Some knew he had fought Hodgkin's Disease to a standstill; it only made the victory that much more compelling.
"If I had known that was 'live', I probably would have walked away," Blatnick said during wrestling competition this week at the U.S. Olympic Festival. "What happened there was spontaneous -- no control and totally oblivious to the TV camera."
Phone calls flooded in and he suddenly was in demand for talk shows.
"It was really crazy and that's when I got the feeling as to what happened," Blatnick said. "I was very proud. I just hope no one has to have cancer to have something like that happen to them."
Almost three years after winning the gold medal, Blatnick still is wrestling with opponents and cancer. Neither has been easy.
Blatnick, who still lives in Schenectady, N.Y., began wrestling at 15. He was 25 when he had his first bout with the disease. It lasted nine months and he had to have his spleen removed, but he regained his strength in time for the Olympics.
Blatnick had hoped to stay at the top of his sport and compete in the 1988 Olympics.
"I made it very clear that I wanted to wrestle against a full field," Blatnick said in reference to the Soviet-led boycott of the '84 Games. The Soviets have long had one of the strongest teams in the world. Blatnick also was on the 1980 Olympic team, which stayed home because of the U.S.-led boycott. "No one in '84 wanted to think of ourselves with asterisks next to our names. I've never beaten a Russian and I want to beat a Russian. And if they have another boycott, I'm history on the spot."
If Blatnick competes in Seoul, it will have made his 1984 comeback look like a picnic. In March 1985, he had surgery on his right knee. In the spring, he began to feel weak and then, at the end of July, he discovered a lump in his groin area. There was no surgery, but there were months of chemotherapy. The side effects included numbness in his hands and feet, which made walking down stairs treacherous. He also got hives because he was "allergic to my own sweat." Imagine that: a wrestler allergic to sweat.
"You can look at it as a way to stay alive or as a pain in the butt," Blatnick said of the treatment. "A lot of people get distressed over the vomiting and losing their hair. I said that if it happens, fine, but I'm going to walk away from this in six months. That's the attitude I took. Attitude has everything to do with performance. It could be athletics or acting or responding to medication. You can never let go of life and you must keep your dreams. There's no guarantee. But if there's a one in a hundred chance, why can't you be that one.
"There were times I wondered if I was losing because of the physical effects. You could feel overwhelmed. But if you're stuck sitting, with nothing to do, all you do is think about it. It's a vicious circle. You can't give up your dreams and what you're doing, even if you can't do it as well. You have to keep living life, not act like a piece of meat waiting to see the final outcome. You can determine the outcome. What the body creates, the body can get rid of. Period."
In all, Blatnick was out of wrestling for almost 20 months. And he will be 30 on July 26.
"Right now, the odds against me making the '88 team and winning a gold medal are astronomical," Blatnick said. "What I'm doing now is trying to show that if you really want to, you can come back from whatever hardship you've had and give it your best shot."
Having resumed hard training in mid-April of this year, Blatnick, on Thursday, wrestled only his ninth and 10th opponents since 1984. He lost both matches.
Blatnick was the third seed in the 286-pound class (after finishing third in the U.S. championships), but he was beaten, 7-4 and 3-0, by fourth-seeded Morris Johnson of San Francisco. In the Greco-Roman format, the third and fourth seeds meet in a best-of-three-match series, with the winner advancing to meet the second seed. The tournament winner will be the U.S. representative at the Pan American Games next month.
Blatnick said he wasn't staking the rest of his wrestling career on this competition but he did want to use it for evaluation.
"People say, 'We'll see you in '88,' as if I'm already on the team," he said. "It's a long process and there are a lot of people that have been working damn hard. They're hungry. I'm still looking to find that hunger. My confidence is not way up there.
"My foot speed is not the same. The conditioning part I can get back. But if I can't get my body to respond to the situations when you have to be alert and to move quickly, it's time for me to go to golf."
Blatnick said he will try to attend a training camp for elite wrestlers that begins July 24 in Pensacola, Fla. How he performs there will play a part in his decision on whether to continue. With the success in 1984, he has had speaking engagements and opportunities in broadcasting. He's learned there is more to life than rolling around on a mat.
"That's part of the anxiety," he said. "Sometimes you say to yourself, 'Where are you going with this?' "