Natick athlete bounces back to sports with a USA Today Special Olympics award

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Credit: Courtesy of Becky Blatnica

Natick High School junior Jake Blatnica received USA Today’s Special Olympics Athlete of the Year Award. “I think [the best part] was just getting to see that if you work really hard other people will recognize it too,” Jake’s mother Becky Blatnica said.

Earlier this summer, USA Today named Natick High School junior Jake Blatnica the Special Olympics Athlete of the Year. The award, presented by Michael Strahan during the High School Sports Award Ceremony, recognized Jake for his success in Unified basketball and track.

While his community had long recognized his athletic talents, the national award still came as a complete surprise to Jake’s family.

“We totally did not know it was coming or happening,” Jake’s mother, Becky Blatnica said. “We knew a couple days before, but other people nominated him and put everything together, so we didn’t even know it was in the realm of possibility. We were just so excited for him because he’s worked so hard.”

As a special needs individual, Jake plays for Natick High School’s Unified track and field, basketball and bocce teams. Unified Sports allows people with and without intellectual disabilities to play on the same team.

“[I love to] play with friends and cheer,” Jake Blatnica said.

Like most sports in the last year, the Unified Sports teams at Natick High School faced numerous setbacks due to COVID-19 concerns. With many immunocompromised athletes, Unified Sports needed to be especially careful when returning after the pandemic.

“Unified basketball is usually in the fall, but because of COVID-19 rules, [Unified Sports] thought it would be best not to have it, especially since some of the athletes have weaker immune systems,” Jake’s classmate and fellow Special Olympics leader Kate Doherty said. “Luckily, they were able to push [Unified basketball] to Fall II and so we were able to have [our season] then, wearing masks. We couldn’t compete against other teams, so we split our team in half and had scrimmages.”

Natick High School’s Unified Sports program involves track and field, bocce, and basketball. “We still had lots of people coming to watch and cheer us on, which was really great to see people there still supporting the team,” Jake’s teammate Kate Doherty said. (Credit: Courtesy of Becky Blatnica )

In 2020, Jake tore his ACL. Coming back from that devastating injury, Jake missed out on Natick High School’s Unified basketball season. Jake couldn’t play for a while due to getting surgery, however, even when he couldn’t play, he still supported his team from the sidelines.

“One thing that we kept telling him when he had to have surgery [was that he would] play sports again, and that was all he cared about,” Becky Blatnica said. “He was still recovering when they had the Unified basketball team play, but he went to every practice and attended every game.”

In the last game of the basketball season, Jake still was not cleared to play, but his team and coaches created a plan that allowed him to participate.

“At our last game, [Jake] went out there and was able to stand on the edge [of the court], and someone on our team passed the ball to him, and he scored a point, which was, like the highlight of our season,” Doherty said.

When USA Today announced the award, the Blatnica’s received an outpouring of support and congratulations from their community.

“It has been overwhelming support,” Becky Blatnica said. “Everyone is thrilled to death and telling Jake how much he deserves it, and that they’re so proud of him.”

Jake greatly appreciated the positive attention he received.

“It made me feel happy,” Jake Blatnica said.