Deerfield senior Aiden Cohen has traveled around the world for judo competitions, carrying on a family legacy while chasing an Olympic dream.
When he’s home these days, you can find Cohen on the wrestling mat, where he just helped the Warriors win their 15th consecutive Central Suburban League North title.
Cohen plans to return to high-profile judo competition in the spring, but he will spend the next several weeks focused on one goal: winning a state championship.
“Since I’m competing so much with judo and wrestling, I’ve got good awareness and knowledge in both,” he said. “They both definitely help me with the other. I love competition, and I get to test myself against great competitors in both sports.”
Cohen (32-4), who finished fifth at 170 pounds in Class 2A last season, is ranked No. 2 in 2A at 170 by Illinois Matmen.
“I want to walk home with the bracket board at state,” he said. “I’m going to be working a lot harder. It’s my last year to do it, so I have a lot of motivation.”
Deerfield coach Marc Pechter sees the hunger inside Cohen.
“He’s been really good in the room this year,” Pechter said. “He’s training hard, and his work ethic has been better than ever. He’s getting at it, he’s being coachable. He’s really become a better wrestler.
“Judo by itself will get you far, but it won’t get you far enough. You’ve got to be a good wrestler to supplement those judo skills, and he’s really improved his wrestling.”
For more than 40 years, young athletes from the Chicago area have been introduced to judo through the Cohen Brothers Judo Club.
It was started by Cohen’s grandfather Irwin and great-uncle Steve. After Irwin Cohen died in 2012, Aiden Cohen’s father R.J. and uncle Aaron took over.
Aaron Cohen is also an assistant for the Deerfield wrestling team.
“My brother and I took over the club, and we wanted to build something special, not just for us, but for my dad,” Aaron Cohen said. “That’s kind of what he always wanted. When my dad passed away, Aiden was 5 or 6 years old. That was kind of our starting point with fresh kids who started under me and my brother.
“We really built the club up. With that age group and guys that are a little older, we’ve had a lot of success. A lot of our judo kids have wrestled at Deerfield.”
The Cohens have an impressive track record in judo. Irwin Cohen represented the United States in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, and Steve Cohen competed in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Aaron and R.J. Cohen were both Olympic alternates for the U.S. national team.
So Aiden Cohen has been around the sport his whole life.
“I grew up watching my dad and my uncle,” he said. “They taught me everything I need to know. I grew up going to all the big events, all the national championships for many years. Judo has always been such a huge part of my life, and I definitely grew that love for it.”
Aiden Cohen said there have been times when he wanted to walk away from judo due to the intense training demands, but his passion for the sport never wavered.
“I definitely wouldn’t say I was forced into doing it, but there was some pressure, and there were times where I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “But I also loved it. I was always around the sport, and I always wanted to be a part of it.”
Aiden Cohen has followed in his family members’ footsteps by representing Team USA in several international events. Last April, he brought home a silver medal from the Cadet Pan-American Championships in Peru. He improved on the bronze he won at the same event a year earlier.
“That was cool,” he said. “I got to go down and represent Team USA, make the finals, almost win it. It’s always amazing to get to represent my country doing what I love. It’s always fun and a great experience, and I always come away with a medal.”
Aaron Cohen has been by his side as his coach all along. Aaron and R.J. Cohen have an agreement to coach each other’s sons in the sport. That’s something Aaron Cohen said he learned from his father and his uncle.
“Some of my greatest memories growing up with my dad was just having him be there for me, supporting me,” Aaron Cohen said. “He didn’t come yell at me as my coach. He was just there as my dad, and that was amazing.
“So R.J. and I kind of have a rule. He coaches my kids, and I coach Aiden and his two younger brothers.”
Aiden Cohen has competed all over Europe in judo, as well.
“We love it,” Aaron Cohen said. “Aiden has been doing a great job in judo, and now it’s focusing on wrestling and then back to judo.”
Judo came naturally for Aiden Cohen. Wrestling presented more of a challenge.
He learned to throw opponents in judo, which has certainly paid off on the wrestling mat, but there has been a lot of necessary refining of his wrestling technique over the years.
“I’ve had to do a lot of training to get better at wrestling,” he said. “It’s getting better at technique and knowing how to control guys so that I can get to my shots. Judo definitely helps, but there was still a lot to learn in wrestling.”
Many of the Cohen Brothers Judo Club’s pupils have gone down the same path, learning how to wrestle at a bit of an older age than many opponents who grew up focused on wrestling.
“As much as I’d love for them all to do judo, it’s tough because judo is not big in the United States and there aren’t a lot of college opportunities,” Aaron Cohen said. “Unless you really have an Olympic dream, we’ve got to help these kids turn judo into wrestling.
“They can use this judo background as their X-factor. It’s something that other people don’t really know.”
Pechter is responsible for helping guys like Shvartsman, Neumark and Aiden Cohen become better wrestlers.
“Aiden is never out of a match with his throwing ability,” Pechter said. “That’s something the guys who come from judo are great at. But you’re not going to throw your way to the state title. You have to wrestle your way to the state title.
“So you have to be coachable, keep learning and working on technique. Aiden is doing a great job with that. He’s very coachable, and he wants to keep getting better at wrestling.”
Aiden Cohen’s short-term goals are easy to wrap his head around. He wants to win an individual state championship and help Deerfield have another successful season.
His future is a bit murkier. Will he wrestle in college or focus on judo?
“That’s all up in the air right now,” Aiden Cohen said. “There are definitely some decisions to make. I think about it a lot. I’ll get back going with judo after the wrestling season and then go from there.
“Right now, though, I’m totally focused on this wrestling season and going after this state championship.”
Ultimately, Aiden Cohen wants to be an Olympian. It’s something he has thought about his entire life while watching his father and uncle compete and hearing the Olympic stories of his grandfather.
“I want to go to the Olympics, definitely,” Aiden Cohen said. “That’s been a goal for a long time. Watching all my family members has definitely inspired me.”
Aaron Cohen was excited when Los Angeles was named the host for the 2028 Summer Olympics. That will open up more opportunities for American athletes to qualify. He said he believes Aiden Cohen is fully capable of being one of them.
“He’s in a good age group with the Olympics coming to LA,” Aaron Cohen said. “It’s very difficult to qualify. You have to win competitions all over Europe, and it’s very expensive and tough to do.
“But as the host country, we’re guaranteed a full team for 2028. Aiden has a lot of talent. He can definitely do it. A lot of it has to come from him. It’s not just saying, it’s doing. You have to have a dream and then work to achieve it.”
Ultimately, Aiden Cohen doesn’t want to merely add to his family’s legacy. He wants to set a new standard of success for the Cohens.
“I see everything that my dad, uncle, grandpa did, and that definitely motivates me,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to top them. I want to be the best out of anyone in the family.”
Steve Millar is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.