Jo Cohen recalls once overhearing the conversation of a pair of competitors in a fitness center’s locker room.
“I started swimming when I was 8,” said one woman, to which the other shot back, “Oh, you’re a late bloomer. I started when I was 6!”
The anecdote still makes Cohen smile. That’s because the 79-year-old Pikesville resident only began swimming seven years ago — and is now a seven-time Maryland Senior Olympics medalist.
On Sept. 15, Cohen won a gold, silver and two bronze medals at the games held at Germantown Indoor Swim Center in Montgomery County. She will compete in four events in the 2019 National Senior Olympics next June in Albuquerque, N.M.
A mother of three and grandmother of five, Cohen began swimming as a full-time hobby after the death of her husband, Harold.
“I am doing so well because of my husband,” she said. “Whatever I wanted to do, he was supportive. He still inspires me.”
To prepare for nationals and to improve her times, Cohen recently joined Mount Washington’s Meadowbrook Swim Club, home of Baltimore-based Olympian Michael Phelps. She hopes to get some pointers there on improving her diving and flip turns.
Cohen, who does not have a coach, is also hoping for some longevity in the strenuous sport. “I hope to be one of those people one day,” she said while flipping through a listing of 90-year-old national swimmers.
A self-taught swimmer, Cohen does not have a weekly routine but heads to the pool whenever she has time, which is usually about four times a week. She began educating herself about swimming by reading books and magazines and watching YouTube videos. With no hesitation, she jumped into the pool and began learning different strokes and how to breathe properly.
Previously, Cohen said she only knew how to tread water.
Cohen – who earned a gold and two silver medals at the 2017 Maryland Senior Olympics – first learned of the games through a friend who had been competing for years.
Cohen said she initially began swimming for the sports health benefits. She was suffering from spinal disc problems and found that swimming is a non-stress sport that relieves pressure on the spine. She said her body responded well.
“The most important thing is to stay healthy,” said Cohen, noting that she only swims freestyle and backstroke because of her back.
When she’s not swimming, Cohen participates in weekly bridge lessons to help keep her mind sharp and agile. Like swimming, she enjoys the challenge of the card game.
Cohen grew up moving around upstate New York, where she pursued an undergraduate degree in nursing from Binghamton University. Binghamton students took their science classes at Harpur College — now a part of Binghamton — which led Cohen to meeting her husband. Ten days following her 1960 college graduation, the couple got married.
Cohen’s husband continued his education at Cornell University, earning a master’s degree and doctorate in economics. At the time, Cohen was working as a nurse at Tompkins County Hospital in Ithaca.
In 1972, the Cohens moved to Baltimore, where she worked as a stay-at-home mom while her husband served as the first chair of Maryland’s Health Services Cost Review Commission.
At 40, she decided to go back to school when her own children were in grade school. Over the next decade, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from University of Baltimore as well as a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She also did a refresher course in nursing and began working at Northwest Hospital Center in Randallstown.
Throughout her childhood and adulthood, Cohen says she was never a competitive athlete — until now. “It’s really nice to reach different goals in your life,” she said.
Cohen’s son, Robb, take tremendous pride in his mother’s athletic achievements in recent years.
“I am incredibly thankful and happy that my mom has found something so self-fulfilling and productive, for both the mind and the body, and of course tremendously impressed with her tenacity and commitment to doing so well,” he said.
Cohen hopes her story can inspire others. Despite aging. She said one does not need to limit their goals or achievements.
“Life is full,” Cohen said.