How I Know I Want To Do What I Want To Do

Okay, so I have some important life things to report, but I’ve decided to put those off until a later date and instead talk about something else.

I’ve had this book called “Awaken the Olympian Within” for the longest time, and never got around to reading it. Well, at the end of this summer, I was on a reading kick and decided to bring it to Miami with me. I have basically zero free time, but this book is a bunch of individual anecdotes from past Olympians – I can (and have) put it down for over a month at a time and not forget any plot points.

Yesterday, I left for a trip with my travel writing class. We’re writing stories about Grand Teton National Park, and to get here we flew from Miami to Dallas, and from Dallas to Salt Lake City. I brought “Awaken the Olympian Within” with me to read on my flights when electronics had to be turned off. So I read several chapters when we took off out of Dallas, and a few more as we were landing in Salt Late City. The last one I read was by a guy named Jeff Blatnick.

Blatnick was a Greco-Roman wrestler, and won gold in the 1984 Olympics after being diagnosed with Hogdkin’s Disease (cancer) two years previously. He talked about how he was into sports as a kid but always sat on the bench, until his brother David introduced him to the high school wrestling coach. He wrote:

“Quickly growing in speed and strength, I flourished on the mat. Soon I was defeating people who had beaten me months earlier. I was improving and motivated. My brother David and his buddies started showing up at the gym whenever I had an important match and, if I did well, I heard them pounding their feet in unison on the bleachers, the sound echoing off the walls. Even after he joined the Air Force, David would come home on occasion and stomp on the bleachers with his pals.

“In 1977, David was a passenger on a motorcycle that didn’t negotiate a sharp turn and he was thrown. He died shortly thereafter. My brother had brought me to my sport, but he was taken away before he could see my success.”

Jeff got diagnosed with cancer in 1982 (two years after he should’ve competed in the 1980 Games had there not been a boycott), and went into remission six months later. Of course, I’m not doing the story justice by summarizing it, but in a nutshell, he rehabbed, got back into top form, and made it to the Olympics. Before the gold medal match, he wrote:

“In an age-old ritual, my dad said, ‘Get mad, son!’ and I responded as I always had, ‘If you get mad, you get stupid.’ He patted my shoulder and I thought my family had given me all the encouragement possible until, as I walked toward the mat, mom whispered in my ear, ‘Do it for Dave.’”

So four years later than he should’ve, Blatnick became the second American in history to win an Olympic medal in Greco-Roman wrestling, and it was gold. And he’d beaten cancer. All really inspirational stuff, but his story ended with this:

“Perhaps it was just my imagination, but as I stepped up to receive my gold medal, amid the clapping and cheering of the partisan American crowd, I thought I heard the sound of feet pounding in unison on the bleachers, echoing off the walls.”

I read this and broke down.

Okay, I wasn’t wailing or sobbing or anything, but I cried. And not just teared up, either – I legitimately had to wipe my eyes so tears weren’t rolling down my face. I don’t even understand why! I mean, I’ve read and seen and heard about all sorts of inspirational and heartbreaking stories like this. Hello, Dan Jansen wrote an earlier chapter of the book. It doesn’t get much more heartbreaking, yet I was dry-eyed. But for Jeff Blatnick and his brother, I couldn’t keep it together.

And then we landed, and the flight attendant said, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Salt Lake City.”

I wasn’t expecting that to be as big a deal as it was, either, but suddenly I was THERE. This is where Sarah Hughes won her gold medal, where Apolo competed when I first discovered him, where Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were awarded a gold medal after that whole judging scandal. This is where so much of my passion for the Olympics started. And then I was crying about Jeff Blatnick and his brother and being in Salt Lake City and wondering why the hell I had no control over my tear ducts. Luckily I had an empty seat next to me and got myself together fairly quickly.

…Is this what a religious experience feels like?

Just kidding.

But seriously.


  1. And I'm tearing up from your blog. Great writing as always. Have a fabulous weekend!

  2. My feet will always be pounding on the bleachers for you! :) Hope your weekend in the Grand Tetons was wonderful!