Could these tiny judokas follow in grandpa’s Olympic footsteps?

By Nicole Sedivy

On a recent evening, three little Cohens-in-training – all wearing judogi uniforms – were sticking their tongues out at each other, falling down, laughing and bouncing against the mats on the wall.

The kids just want to have fun: Strangulation, arm bars and pins can wait a few years.

But not forever. After all, their grandpa, Irwin Cohen, was a 1972 Olympian and five-time gold medalist at the Maccabiah Games. Their great-uncle, Steve Cohen, competed at the 1988 Olympics and coached Team USA at the 2000 Olympics. Their uncle, Aaron Cohen, 34, was a U.S. national champion. And their dad, R.J. Cohen, 37, was a U.S. silver medalist.

But R.J.’s kids (Aiden, 11, Adrian, 7, and Jayme, 5) and Aaron’s son (Brody, due May 8) need to wait a couple cycles for their chance.

Still, they’re already training with their dad and uncle at the Cohen Brothers Judo Club, which their grandfather and great-uncle started in 1992. It’s a competitive place.

“We’ve had over seven people come from here that went to the Olympics,” R.J. said. “For me, that’s something special that you can’t get at most places.”

Starting when they’re as young as 4 years old, girls and boys receive high-level coaching. The club works with about 95 students, including a few 2020 Olympic hopefuls.

R.J. fondly remembers attending the Games with his father. He wants the kids he trains, including his own, to keep the Olympic goal in mind. And he sees the sport as a way of life.

“You know, our vacations were judo tournaments,” R.J said. “So our spring break was nationals in Florida, or Pittsburgh. Wherever it was. So how we always used to travel and go to these tournaments with our parents.”

The brothers have always coached at the club, and after Irwin died in 2012, they took over the family business.

For T.J. Minogue, father of Mary, 7, and Joe, 6, the brothers’ experience as champions and sons of champions sets them apart from other coaches.

“They have a history,” he said. “They care, and they have experience themselves of being little kids learning this sport.”

R.J. expects excellence from his judo players, on and off the mat. When the kids goof around too much, he’s not afraid to get stern.

“’I don’t like losing,’” he said to one chatty boy. “’When you sit down, and you’re talking, you’re not going to win.’”

But the yelling doesn’t discourage Faina Komrov from allowing her son, Max, to train with the club. After just a few weeks, she already notices differences.

“He’s way more disciplined, I would say,” Komrov said. “I really like it. I see change. He just loves it.”

Although they don’t practice judo themselves, the Cohen brothers’ wives also support the sport and talk as a family about Grandpa Irwin’s legacy.

“We tell them everyday about our father – how special he was, how much he loved them, how proud he would have been to see them on the mat,” R.J. said. “Not everyone is an Olympian. Not everyone is going to the Olympics. But everyone here pretty much excels at everything they do, and that’s what we’re proud of.”

Photo at top: Little judo players goof around with each other at practice. (Nicole Sedivy/MEDILL)