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Columnist
Flame of Olympic dream burns in Mundelein warehouse
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 10/15/2009 12:01 AM

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While pundits continue to analyze Chicago's failed Olympic bid and fans anticipate the 2016 games in Rio, a select group of athletes gather in a nondescript, former tile warehouse in Mundelein to work on their dreams of bringing home gold from London.

"Right now, I'm focused on 2012," says Aaron Cohen, 28, a national judo champion, who lives in Buffalo Grove.

"I really want to just concentrate on London," echoes Josh O'Neil, 24, another national judo champ, who lives in Hawthorn Woods.

The men train in, and are products of, Cohen's Judo Club in Mundelein. They don't have to look far for Olympic inspiration.

Donning the exclusive jacket with the Olympic rings reserved only for Olympians, Irwin Cohen (Aaron's father) of Buffalo Grove and his brother Steve Cohen of Grayslake have built a top-notch judo training facility in an unlikely place.

Having trained since his grade-school days at Cohen's Judo Club, O'Neil moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., before coming back to Mundelein to continue training for 2012.

"This really is an elite training facility," O'Neil says.

Flags of 42 nations where club members have competed hang from the rafters above two competition judo mats. So does an Olympic flag.

While the 1972 Olympics in Munich are remembered for the massacre that killed 11 Israeli athletes, Cohen says he still has fond memories of his spot on the U.S. Olympic judo team.

"I lost in the second round to the Soviet. He ended up fourth," recalls Irwin Cohen. That experience fuels his hope for the young athletes he trains now.

Cohen won medals in every international judo competition during the 1960s and '70s except for the Olympics. His brother competed in the 1988 Games in Seoul, and the Cohen brothers have been Olympics coaches.

While judo is one of those most popular sports in the world, it still can be viewed in the U.S. as just another after-school program, lumped in with other martial arts competing for strip mall storefront space.

"We're like a third-world country," Irwin Cohen says. "We just don't have the funding."

Some of this nation's most promising judo athletes turn to sports such as wrestling, where they can earn college scholarships. While a favorite to make the 2012 team that competes in London, Aaron Cohen is an assistant wrestling coach at Deerfield High School.

"Judo in Europe is like basketball here," Aaron Cohen says. "Every city has a good program."

That just means more work in Mundelein.

"I've trained harder than I've ever trained in my life," Aaron Cohen says of his push for the 2012 Olympics.

"We've got four or five kids" with legitimate shots at the Olympics, Irwin Cohen says, noting four of his students have won world competitions in the last year. With a decade of training under his belt and his 16th birthday on tap for next week, national and world championship team member Max Golembo of Vernon Hills is a rising star, Irwin Cohen says.

Had Chicago landed the Olympics, it would have opened the gates to corporate sponsorships, Irwin Cohen says. The Cohens' not-for-profit Elite Training Center needs sponsors to send athletes to the premier competitions in Europe and Asia, he says. A national champion in Mundelein can travel 1,000 miles and still not get the chance to compete against another Olympic-grade opponent, Irwin Cohen says. For information about judo, the Elite Training Center and its Nov. 15 fundraiser in Long Grove, visit the Web site www.cohensjudoclub.com.

"We've got a bunch of kids coming up who are 10, 11, 12. I don't know about 2016, but 2020," Irwin Cohen says. "I don't know. Maybe Chicago."

He smiles as he picks up his leather jacket with the Olympic logo.

"Rio. London. We're going to fight wherever they have the Olympics," Irwin Cohen says of his athletes. "It doesn't matter where they win, as long as they win."