Joseph Cohen was a sophomore in Philadelphia when he had to give up cardiovascular-based sports due to a heart condition. He noticed that his Olney High School had a fencing team so he asked his doctor if he could engage in the sport which has existed since ancient Egypt.
A native of the City of Brotherly Love, Cohen shares his nature-friendly Court House one-acre estate with spouse, Barbara; daughter, Joie; and a host of birds, butterflies, turtles and other local wildlife. Two months after extinguishing 70 birthday candles on Aug. 19 he’ll be in Limoges, France, taking on accomplished Japanese and Russian challengers, among others, at the International Fencing World Championship Tournament.
“My uncle and cousins were fencers and I started when I was 15 years old,” he said. “Someone offered me lessons and I won a state championship my sophomore year. The next season I won the city and state titles, but I choked in senior year and lost the city championship. I would have set the record with three titles but the pressure got to me and I lost, 5-4.”
After his scholastic fencing career, Cohen parlayed a Temple University athletic scholarship into undergraduate and master’s degrees. He later returned to higher education to garner a doctorate in Education Management from Indiana University.
He was an All-American in his junior and senior years while competing in all three fencing weapons, including Foil, Sabre and Epee.
“I taught for two years in Philadelphia but I had wanderlust and wanted to see the world so I took a teaching job in Pakistan,” said Cohen. “I had to give up fencing.”
Cohen returned to U.S. soil to earn his doctorate in 1977 while also spearheading Indiana University’s fencing club. He achieved Level “B” ranking (“A” being the top) in all three weapons and won all three events at the Cincinnati Open in 1978. He also captured The Bourbon Open in Louisville. His prize was three bottles of the sponsor’s favorite beverage.
“They were fifths so I couldn’t drink them all at once,” he noted. “Winning those two events are among my proudest moments in the sport. That success helped me overcome my disappointment at not having made the national team. I’d have done it if I’d worked harder, but I wasn’t quite good enough and I didn’t have my own coach.”
Cohen recalled the fortunate decision he made to return to America for his doctorate when the alternative was a job offer to head a fledgling Iranian school. Shortly after he began studies at Indiana, the Shah of Iran was overthrown by a chaotic Islamic revolution.
As the top-rated American in the “Veterans Division,” the retired international education consultant rejuvenated his love for fencing after a long hiatus spent traveling the world while teaching U.S. children whose parents were employed in lands as far away as Indonesia. He estimates that since 1970 and until his 2008 retirement, he’s traveled about two million miles.
“I worked for more than 30 years as an education consultant, often in developing countries,” he said. “I remember showing up in South Sudan and seeing no paved roads and living in a tent. We trained 19-year-olds to become teachers. It was a crash program. I worked on formal and non-formal education programs while establishing decentralized systems at the community level. I did a lot of work with restructuring schools and vocational programs to make them more responsive to the particular country’s needs.”
Cohen said he worked in business development, project management and field operations. In 2001 he was in the country of Malawi where he found 90 children in one classroom with no instructional materials, no windows, and a dirt floor. “I’ve seen all kinds of schools but that was the worst,” he lamented. “They were there because the school fed them. They were there for the food.”
After his retirement Cohen said he, “Sat around doing nothing except playing games, watching TV and putting on weight.” In 2012 he decided to return to the sport of swords and began visiting tournaments to catch up on rules and nuances.
“I needed to do something and the thing I did best was fencing,” said Cohen, an avid non-fiction reader and military history buff. “All of a sudden I’m having chest pains and then a heart attack,” he said. “They flew me to Pomona in the middle of the night with clogged arteries.”
Fortunately he had not suffered permanent damage and after an angioplasty and three months of rigorous physical therapy Cohen was back helping Barbara trim their expansive garden and working out in the gym in preparation for his return.
“I joined a fencing club in Philadelphia and in December 2012 I had my first competition in three decades,” said “They saw an old man huffing and puffing up and down a fencing strip. My legs were shaking.”
The fencing strip is roughly four feet wide and about 10 yards long. It is metallic which enables a circuit-driven system to automatically record the electronic weapon striking the opponent’s white uniform jacket to tabulate points and monitor when someone steps off.
These days Cohen’s jaunts are domestic. He has competed in prestigious North American Cup events in Dallas and Reno. He finished second at Nationals three weeks ago after a narrow 10-9 defeat. He trains in Lambertville because of the dearth of fencing in this area, a fact which demoralizes Cohen. He noted that central and north Jersey schools boast 50 fencing programs while only St. Augustine Prep carries the sport in this part of the state.
So what’s the key to fencing success?
“Fencing is chess at lightning speed,” said Cohen. “Your brain is most important because you need to be intellectual and control your emotions. You can’t get upset on the strip. Second is excellent conditioning. The legs and footwork are essential. Technique is next. You must learn how to use your weapon with offensive and defensive moves. And you need to be honed in on timing and distance in regard to where your opponent is. That’s critical.”
Cohen called fencing, “A real thinking sport.” He said if observers understand boxing they’ll grasp fencing.
“Your mind must be sharp to analyze weaknesses,” he said. “I try to accomplish my strategies. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to achieve my full potential in my early years but I set a goal after my heart attack to make a world team and I have.”
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