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Saturday, August 23, 2014

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Judo coach scouting Maccabiah-calibre athletes

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Erez Cohen

The last time Maccabi Canada sent a judo team to the Maccabiah Games, it consisted of only two fighters.

Countries like Israel, the United States, Argentina and Russia sent dozens.

Now, one of those two Canadian judokas has been put in charge of Maccabi Canada’s judo entry for the 2013 Games, and he’s aiming to grow the team.

Erez Cohen, who hails originally from Bnei Brak, Israel, believes there are enough good Canadian athletes to round out a competitive team.

One of them, expected to be a medal contender, is Roman Abramowicz, a 24-year-old immigrant from Kirgistan, who is not to be confused with the Russian billionaire of the same name.

A handful of others may be persuaded to try out for the team, enough to compete in each weight category, or about 10 in all, Cohen said.

Most, like he and Abramowicz, were either born abroad or are the children of immigrants. “It’s hard to find a Canadian born to Canadian parents who will do judo,” he said.

Still, he believes, “there are enough Jewish athletes in Canada. We can build a team.”

Cohen’s assignment at first blush is a lot more challenging that that faced by judo GMs in other countries. In some countries, like the United States, Russia, Argentina and Israel, judo is a very popular sport. Top judokas there are treated with the same kind of reverence we’d associate with hockey stars here.

One of Israel’s top athletes, and perhaps its most popular, is Ariel Zeevi, who recently won the European championship in the 100-kilogram class. He’s won the title five times since 2000, to go along with his 2004 Olympic bronze medal. Hundreds if not thousands of Israelis flock to European venues to see him compete, Cohen said.

Ironically, both he and Zeevi hail from the same small community of Bnei Brak, known more for its haredi demography than for athletic excellence. They also trained at the same club. “We’re kind of the black sheep of the city,” Cohen quipped.

Cohen competed for Israel in international events and twice represented the country at the Maccabiah Games before moving to Canada.

Cohen takes over the reins of the judo team from longstanding team captain Mark Berger. Berger, originally from Russia, is an Olympic bronze medallist, competed for Canada at Maccabiah Games and was the team’s flag-bearer on one occasion.

Cohen expects to get the word out about next summer’s Maccabiah at future competitions and through word-of-mouth with judo coaches around the country.

He’s already been approached by non-Jewish coaches suggesting potential Maccabiah competitors.

“It’s a small community,” he said. “Judokas hang out at all the tournaments. Jewish people just find each other.”

The Ontario Open is set for May 19 and 20 in west Toronto, and Cohen will be on hand to scout potential athletes and make his pitch.

For anybody willing to listen, he’ll tell them the Maccabiah Games “is going to be one of the best experiences they’ll ever have in their lives. I will tell them, it’s one of the highlights of any event I have ever been in.” It brings together people from around the world “who share a love of Israel and sports. It’s something you can’t describe.”

For more information, Cohen can be reached at 416-780-0078.

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