Still Going Strong

Still Going strong *$ years old image

He’s 84 years old and small in stature, but in the weightlifting world, Howard Cohen (‘61) is a giant. His lifelong enthusiasm with weights started when he was a 16-year-old boxer.

“At that time, weightlifting was considered bad for you,” he says. “The coaches and everyone else said not to do it. Of course, that mindset has changed, and now athletes in most sports use weights. As I grew stronger using the weights, I entered a weightlifting contest and won.”

Since then, the Georgia Southern alumnus has won multiple trophies, medals, awards and accolades. “There is no way that I can give you an exact answer to how many, but I have been lifting since 1949, and I have over 100 trophies in my attic,” says Cohen. “I have about the same number of medals, which I keep on a rack in my game room. I have won the world title 12 times, the Pan American title 18 times and the USA Nationals 28 times. Of course, these are the big contests. I also have lifted in local and regional meets many times.”

A Weightlifting Powerhouse
The world-class champion celebrated his most recent win in the National Masters Championships. He claimed the gold medal in his weight class and set six national records.

Weightlifting features competition in two events, the snatch and the clean and jerk. “A lifter’s body starts to lose something as you get older, so we now have a masters level program for weightlifters 35 and older,” Cohen explains. “We compete in weight divisions and both lifts added together gives you a total. The lifter with the highest total wins.”

“Mr. Georgia”
Cohen also has enjoyed the title of “Mr. Georgia,” which he calls a male beauty contest. He had beefed up his body from lifting weights and doing all the exercises for the Amateur Athletic Union sponsored competitions. “The Georgia weightlifting championships were followed by the physique contest,” he says. “In 1953, I went to Israel to compete in the world Maccabiah Games representing the United States. When I came back, I had a USA uniform and wore that uniform at the Georgia championships. I entered the physique contest and won the title, and 1954, I did it again. I won the Georgia weightlifting title and Mr. Georgia. I entered a lot of physique contests after that.”

Howard’s Gym in Savannah
Cohen grew up in Savannah, was a boxer at Benedictine Military School and served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. While stationed and training athletes at bases in California and the Azores, he noticed the growing popularity of weightlifting. “I put two and two together and decided to open a gym when I got out. I didn’t have any bucks so I made arrangements to rent space in the old Savannah Morning News building on the corner of Whitaker and Bay Street. Financially it was not a big success.”

Now married and raising three children, Cohen went back to school — graduating from Armstrong Junior College and completing work for a bachelor’s in mathematics at Georgia Southern. In December, he and his wife, Carol, celebrated 60 years of wedded bliss.

“I had a favorable experience at Georgia Southern except for the travel, which was pretty tough,” he remembers. “I had a long ride home. There was no I-16 at that time, and I had to take back roads going and coming. I traveled U.S. 80 and 46, and I did that five days a week.”

To maintain a sustainable lifestyle while operating the gym, the weightlifter taught math for 30 years in the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. He relocated Howard’s Gym to Dixie Avenue in 1959, and closed the well-known local institution four years ago. “It wasn’t because I wanted to do it, but the physical location was attractive to developers and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he says. “When I closed the gym, the local paper ran a front page story about it.”

Over the years, Cohen trained athletes from around the country including his own son, Michael, who was a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic weightlifting team and coached at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. Cohen’s daughter was also a competitive weightlifter. “At first there were no women lifters and now there are almost as many women as men in our sport,” he notes.

To stay in top condition, he trains for at least an hour three times a week at the Anderson/Cohen Weightlifting Center in Savannah. It’s named after him and Paul Anderson, Georgia’s Olympic weightlifting champion. It’s also where he trains a grandson. At age 84, is Cohen as fit as he looks?

“I tell you what I’m a lot less than I used to be,” he says with a smile. “I do quite a bit of traveling and when I go to the airport to travel, you have to go through those lines and take off your shoes at security, but if you’re 75 and older you don’t have to do that. So, when I go through the line and they ask me ‘how old are you?’ I quickly tell then I’m over 75.”

At this point in his life Cohen has no intention of slowing down. The thrill of victory keeps him going. “I have no plans to give up competition, but if I see that I need to stop, I will. Weightlifting is a great sport and it is great exercise. Anything that makes you look better and feel better, has to be good.” — Sandra Bennett