by Kate Coleman
[Editor’s note: this profile, written by Kate Coleman, first appeared in the November 2016 Waterlog. We are re-running it here, because Jeremy hasn’t been around for a while due to injury and whatnot–it’s a Valentine reminder of how much he has meant to our team. We miss you, Jeremy…come back.]
Assistant coach, Jeremy Cohen, 68, has been swimming with our team since 1971, the second year of SCAM’S existence. All along, he has been a tireless booster of– and volunteer for almost anything that keeps our team going, including serving as Board President, and always as unofficial recruiter in his friendly, welcoming manner. He also has been a competitive athlete in Masters swim meets, his enthusiasm inspiring fellow swimmers to compete as well. (Open water swims never really grabbed him, perhaps because he’s always been a tall, skinny drink of water who didn’t take well to cold.)
Still, his earliest intro to swimming was just as something to do on lazy summer days in Rhode Island. His father would drop him off at “a modest low budget club…” with an outdoor pool, the family joined when Jeremy was 11. He’d hang around all day—much of the time in the pool—until his father retrieved him after work and took him home.
One day, his father, noticing youngsters on a swim team in the club pool, asked his son if he had any interest in joining. “I guess so,” Jeremy answered. His father talked to the coach. “The coach asked ‘would you mind swimming a lap for me?’,” Jeremy says.
“And…? ” I ask.
“Turns out I was the fastest eleven year old on the team,” he grins.
By age 13, Jeremy had switched to a new club with an indoor pool, a year round swim team, and rigorous training. “By the time I was in high school, that club had the best guys from all over Rhode Island,” he recalls. Some remain friends even now, but Jeremy really gets a kick out of the fact that, years later, his notoriety has lasted with guys he can’t remember. “They remember me ‘cause I used to always beat them,” he says. “My senior year I didn’t lose a single race out of forty eight meets and set several pool records.”
In high school–still only 15 years old–he began a subscription to Swimming World magazine. “The first cover I got was Mark Spitz!,” he recalls. (In the course of my friendship with Jeremy, I recall that he once told me he identified with Spitz, and had followed Spitz’s career as age group contemporary as they both matured into Masters swimmers. In his prime as a senior swimmer, Jeremy even got pretty close to Spitz’s times, which thrilled him.) That 15-year old quickly absorbed the information in that magazine, including race times, and who was who in the swimming world. Jeremy’s zeal for world-class competitive swimming is reflected in his encyclopedic memory of swimming lore over the years. On swimming, he is like the New York baseball fan who recites earned run averages and batting stats, or a racetrack shill spouting odds.
Jeremy’s love of swimming and eagerness to venture farther from home, led him to enroll at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor after high school where he had achieved an excellent academic record. Michigan had a celebrated swim team, but, undaunted by the condescension of the swim coach—“He would often remind me that he hadn’t recruited me,” Jeremy says—he swam his heart and lungs out to keep up with his world-class teammates six days/week, two or three hours a day. He says he realized he was not up to their level, but was proud when, in the final meet that year he scored a point; a major accomplishment in such company.
Nonetheless, he was forced to accept that he would not be another Mark Spitz. He describes Ann Arbor in those mid -60s as a cultural and political cauldron so very much like the Berkeley of that time. “The campus was a turmoil of protest and the hippie life style. MC5 was around with their revolutionary outlook; Iggy Pop—a Michigan high school grad—was opening for bands.” He describes becoming increasingly alienated from the academic rigors of his Economics major, feeling it was not really who he was.
“It was time to do something different,” he says. He stopped cutting his hair, and became a very bushy young man—a veritable Furry Freak Brother. His alienation (except from music and a girl friend) was compounded with depression after a female cousin died tragically from asthma at age 19.
He dropped out of the University in the turbulent year of 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War. (Although his depression was real, his appointments with a shrink, he admits, also served the purpose of getting him out of the Vietnam draft). His parents didn’t upbraid him for dropping out. “My parents were very smart people, and very nice. There was no need for me to rebel against them. My mother was such a booster of me, if I were a murderer, she’d go out and brag about how great a murderer I was.”
While he had drifted away from swimming, he was buoyed by another passion that has been integral to Jeremy’s life to this day: his love of all kinds of music. His musical talent, fostered by his prescient parents who had taken him to a music store when he was only 10 years old and asked him (as they did with each of his siblings) what instrument he would like to learn to play, had led him to play classical music with the U of Mich. orchestra. But in his hippie days he began going to clubs and joining bands, playing rock or folk—“I didn’t care which,” he says. His musical exploits have also included gigs with a modern Klezmer band (playing a modernized version of traditional Jewish music of Eastern Europe), as well as rock, folk and jazz groups.
Not long after dropping out of Michigan, Jeremy headed to California with his girlfriend–first, briefly to L.A., and then up to the Bay Area. Solo by then, he auditioned with a band in Berkeley who were living in a group household. He joined the band and the household. He was playing bass guitar “for hours and hours, playing along with radio,” he says. Beginning to feel uncomfortable about not being in school, he was perusing a Cal summer school catalogue, and noticed there were no pre-requisites to get in. He signed up for two classes: one poetry and the other music. Along the way he found a non-traditional teacher who became his mentor. He got turned on to education again, but sagely waited until he became a California resident before entering Cal in 1971, ultimately graduating with a music degree.
That auspicious year of 1971 also saw an even more fortuitous turn for the swimming prodigy and musical everyman. He had signed up for a class in contemporary Polish literature in translation to meet a requirement for his music degree. The class was taught by the great poet and prose writer (and eventual Nobel laureate) Czeslaw Milosz. “I looked at the reading list and some of the books I’d already read,” Jeremy recalled, “and I met Jane in that class!”
“It was a small class,” Jeremy begins, narrating what follows with obvious satisfaction and wonder over this happy chapter of his life. “We were checking each other out from the beginning; then, one day we left class at the same time and just took each other’s hand. We both had really big hair. I remember she was wearing a patchwork skirt; and…we kissed on the stairs.”
Years later in 1980, shortly after Milosz won his Nobel, Jeremy ran into him at Toot Sweets in Berkeley around the corner from his and Jane’s home. Jeremy says he approached the poet and congratulated him.
“Thank you, ” said the professor.
“I’m not congratulating you for the Nobel prize,” Jeremy said, “but because I met my wife in your class we both took, and now she’s the mother of our child.” The poet smiled back. Like Jeremy and Jane, he had only one child–a boy. (Jane has a career as a voice coach and technique specialist for jazz and opera singers. These days, she’s also become a crack fisherwoman, going out can catching her and Jeremy’s dinner in lakes, estuaries…et al. She loves being on the water, if not in it like her husband).
After swimming 100 laps most days during rec swim at the Strawberry Canyon pool, one day Jeremy saw a notice about the Strawberry Canyon Aquatic Masters (SCAM). He signed up and rediscovered the joy of competitive swimming. He was having fun, competing like mad and doing well, winning points for the team. His strategy for winning points: he noticed that at most meets almost everyone entered the 200 free. “I decided I’m going to enter the event right after that—no matter what it is” he says, calculating that most swimmers would skip it. “I’d do a 200 fly, or 400 IM–in one meet I won a 50 back, which is NOT my stroke!”
In 2010 life threw a punch at Jeremy: he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Major surgery in 201l kept him hospitalized for six weeks. “But as soon as I could,” he says, “I was back the pool!” Another illness—one that puzzled doctors—saw him in the hospital again the following year. Eventually he got better but was left with nagging neuropathy and a lot of pain, especially in his feet. Still he swam—with socks and fins. And he walked. And he got better. “The pain specialist I saw along the way said that the reason I’m getting better is because I tried to get better,” he says, “it hurt, but now I can park blocks from my destination and manage to walk to and from where I’m going.”
And one other thing about Jeremy: he’s a computer genius. Taught himself how (his son works up in Washington State in Microsoft-land). Says it was a breeze.
Jeremy Cohen: the 21st Century Renaissance man.