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Irwin Cohen, Judo Olympian and Judo Icon Passes Away

Irwin Cohen, Judo Olympian and Judo Icon Passes Away


Irwin Cohen, an Olympian, judo champion and cornerstone of the sport in the United States, passed away this morning. He is remembered by his many friends and teammates for being a consummate competitor with a stunning tai otoshi and as a dynamic, exceptional coach who trained many national and international competitors. 


“In the 70's when Irwin Cohen would lead the Chicago judo team into the Junior Nationals venue each year, it just didn't seem fair,” said USA Judo’s President Lance Nading. “At the time, he was a dominating, bigger-than-life senior competitor himself, and yet he was equally passionate about the success of his young students.”


One of those students, Bob Berland, went on to compete at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles where he won a silver medal. “Bob was one of hundreds of students Irwin inspired to be successful on and off the mat. American judo will forever miss Irwin Cohen,” Nading said.


“Today we lost a great man, an Olympian and a pioneer who helped pave the road to success for USA Judo,” said Berland. “He was my judo coach, my inspiration, and a man who eventually became my brother.”


Speaking to the man who’s presence remains strong in the sport, Berland said, “Irwin, after teaching so many of us how to fight like a Champion you demonstrated what it truly means to do so, not only on the Olympic stage but on life's stage. I will always be grateful for all that you have given to me and your legacy will endure! Rest in peace.”


A member of the U.S. judo team at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, Cohen competed in the middleweight division. After winning his first match, he was eliminated from the competition by Guram Gogalauri of the Soviet Union in the second round. Cohen was named Black Belt Magazine’s Judo Competitor of the Year in 1978.


Cohen returned to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney as the assistant coach of the U.S. Judo Team. He also served as assistant coach of the men’s World Team in 1993 in Hamilton, Canada.


Irwin Cohen began competing at the Uptown Judo Club operated by the Jewish Community Centers in Chicago, and in 1969, he exploded onto the national judo scene by placing third at the AAU Nationals in the middleweight division. Two years later, Irwin won the middleweight national championship; he would also win the middleweight crown in 1972 and 1974. Because Cohen's brother, Steve, also competed as a middleweight, Irwin moved up to the light-heavyweight class and won the U.S. National Championship in that division in 1976 and 1978. He also won the gold medal at the 1973 and 1977 Maccabiah Games and the silver medal at the 1975 Pan American Games.


 “He was a friend to judo. He had a brilliant judo mind,” said longtime friend and teammate Pat Burris. “He spent his entire life in the sport of judo trying to make it a better sport, trying to make American judo better. He really was the first family of judo. He and his brother both made Olympic teams. His sons were great judo competitors and now, hopefully, his grandkids will come up. He’s got a very good school in Chicago” (Cohen Brothers Judo Club).


Cohen was known for his tai otoshi, “and his foot sweeps were phenomenal for that era,” said Burris, who was a teammate with Cohen at the 1972 Olympic Games, on three World Teams and also Pan American Teams. “His ouchi gari was spectacular.”


In addition to competing at the Olympic Games, World Championships and Pan American Games, Cohen was a six-time national champion. Irwin Cohen's legacy will continue through the martial arts school, Cohen Brothers Training Center in Mundelein, Illinois, which he ran with his brother, Steve Cohen, who fought on the 1988 and 2000 Olympic Judo Teams. Multiple national champions, World Team members and Olympians have come from the well known club including his own two sons R.J. Cohen and Aaron Cohen, both international competitors and World Team members.  A long and distinguished list of competitors were trained by the Cohen family, among those named on the club’s website at WORLD AND OLYMPIC TEAM MEMBERS are Olympians: Robert Berland, Martin Boonzaayer, Hillary Wolf-Saba and Colleen Rosensteel.


In addition to his two son’s Aaron and Richard “R.J.”, Irwin is survived by his wife Shelly, his daughter Alana and his two grandchildren.


Services are tentatively scheduled for Wednesday and details are pending.


By Ernest Pund, USA Judo Communications



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