Irwin Cohen competed for the United States in the 1972 Munich Olympics, but for him and the athletes he coached since, judo was always much more than a sport. It was family, and a way to learn life lessons and self confidence.
This is why people around the world are mourning the Buffalo Grove resident's death Monday at the age of 60. Cohen lost a 12-year fight with amyloidosis, which causes proteins to build up in organs such as hearts and kidneys. He also was recently diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndromes, which prevents the bone marrow from making enough healthy blood cells. His original diagnosis included a prediction he would live only five months, and his 12-year ordeal included two stem cell replacements and a kidney transplant.
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"He made these kids what they are today," said Kim Golembo of Vernon Hills, whose son, Max, a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, worked with Cohen from the age of 5. "Judo gave them discipline and confidence and self-esteem in all aspects of life. He treated them like his own kids and taught them how to conduct themselves in every situation."
Max Golembo saw his coach bounce back many times and visited him a few weeks ago.
"He didn't just care about me as a judo player. I told him I don't know if I am going to stick with judo or just pursue baseball," said Max Golembo. "He said, 'Whatever you do, do it 100 percent. Be sure you're happy; don't sell yourself short.' And I wasn't unique, he treated a lot of people that way."
Irwin Cohen told his brother, Steve, that he had ridden to training sessions with Israeli athletes who were among the 11 weightlifters, wrestlers and coaches killed by Palestinian militants in the 1972 Munich massacre.
"You don't think that it's the last time you're going to see the person," Steve Cohen said Tuesday. "You develop a relationship, a Jewish kid and Israeli athletes. Every time we went back to Munich he visited the village."
But Irwin Cohen told the Daily Herald that he still had fond memories of that ultimate competition.
And after the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics he reiterated his belief that the games must go on.
"(Canceling the Olympics) is just what these nut cases want," he said in the article. "If you cancel them, they win. We can't give in to these terrorist acts." Cohen's Olympic career included coaching at the 1992 games in Barcelona and 2000 in Sydney, as well as training athletes who went on to compete in the games, including his brother, Steve, Robert Berland, Hillary Wolf, Colleen Rosensteel and Martin Boonzaayer. Kayla Harrison, who just became the first American to win a gold Olympic medal, worked with the Cohens when she was young, as did Marti Malloy, who took bronze in London.
Irwin Cohen's wife, Shelly, said his three children and three grandchildren meant more to him than anything. And he loved working with young people.
"As important as it was for him to achieve in his sport, it was just as important for him to train young athletes," said Shelly Cohen. "He wanted nothing more than to get the best out of everybody, whether they were in wheelchairs or autistic or uncoordinated. You name it, he's had it. He made everybody feel great about themselves."
When Irwin and Steve were young they started lessons with Ray Newman, known for including youngsters with physical and mental handicaps in his programs. The brothers always followed his lead when they were coaching.
"Irwin always stood up for the athletes; they knew someone was on their side," said Steve Cohen.
Only a handful of U.S. citizens have won Olympic medals in judo, and three of them have come to see the family this week.
Lisa Stone, a former Buffalo Grove village trustee whose sons excelled with training at Cohen Brothers Judo and Wrestling Club, in Mundelein, said Irwin and Shelly Cohen often let people from around the world stay at their home.
"When he (Irwin) was sick he still got to judo, to competitions," Stone marveled. "The rest of the family had his back as far as coaching was concerned, but they didn't need to because he was there."
Irwin and his sons, Aaron and RJ, owned the club, and both young men excelled in international judo competition. Their sister, Alana, won international awards in figure skating.
A memorial service will be held at noon Wednesday, Aug. 29, at Beth Am Temple, 225 McHenry Road, Buffalo Grove, followed by burial at Shalom Memorial Park, 1700 W. Rand Road, Arlington Heights. Donations in Irwin Cohen's memory can be made to the nonprofit Elite Training Center, NFP, 108 Terrace Drive, Mundelein, IL 60060.
The family will sit shiva at Irwin Cohen's Buffalo Grove home.