Jews in Sports: What price glory? Olympian Sasha Cohen

By Bill Simons

The XXIV Winter Olympics are upon us. The People’s Republic of China will host the games from February 4-20. Public health and politics render the games controversial. Diplomatic officials, albeit not athletes, from the United States and several other democratic nations will boycott the games to protest China’s repression of human rights. Nonetheless, millions of fans across the globe will watch events on television and digital platforms in 15 sports, including skiing, sledding, skating, hockey and curling. And Jews will have standard bearers in the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Several American and Israeli Jews will compete in the Beijing Olympics. Israeli pairs figure skating partners Evgeni Krasnopolski and Hailey Kops are amongst the Jewish participants. On the ice, Krasnopolski and Kops are a vivacious and talented couple. The 19-year-old Kops elicits particular interest. Although she skates on the Sabbath, Kops walks to the rink, observes kashruth and identifies as Modern Orthodox. Due to Kops’ assertion of Orthodoxy while competing on the Sabbath, Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, while wishing her well, states that the young figure skater is not a role model for Modern Orthodoxy. This raises another question: should young athletes, Jewish or Gentile, compete at a level where extraordinary expectations of performance on and off the athletic site are placed upon them?

In the late 1960s, my sister Jo Ann held multiple New England, age-group swim records in Amateur Athletic Union competition. In her early teens, Jo Ann rose around 3:30 am to swim endless laps before school and then, after school, returned to the water for team practices. Competition, where she won innumerable trophies, dominated weekends. To fulfill her potential and gain a potential Olympic birth, Jo Ann’s coach advised her to go to a residential swim school in California. Overruling Jo Ann, my mother, convinced that such narrow and intense focus at an early age would stunt Jo Ann socially and render her vulnerable to predators, thwarted those plans. 

Jo Ann continued to swim, albeit in a less demanding milieu. She captained the swim team at Wheaton College and was the first woman to win a varsity letter at Trinity College. Moreover, she earned two college degrees; married and raised children, one of whom has Down Syndrome and is a Special Olympics medalist in golf; gained a national reputation as an advocate for those with developmental disabilities; and perennially ranks amongst the top 10 on Boston Globe Magazine’s annual list of the most influential women CEOs in New England. In contrast, the great Jewish-American gymnast and standard bearer Aly Raisman, winner of six Olympic medals, endured sexual abuse, along with many other young women, at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar and continues to search for a post-athletic pathway in her personal and professional life. 

The U.S. figure skater Sasha Cohen, the daughter of a Russian immigrant mother and an American father, is probably the most famous Jewish athlete to participate in the Winter Olympics. Her immense talent, dedication, melodramatic episodes, glamour and ethereal beauty rendered her a celebrity. Passionate and innocent, Sasha commanded an immense fan base while still an adolescent. For enthralled spectators, she did not merely skate to the music of “Romeo and Juliet,” Sasha was Juliet. Her inspired choreography, music, costuming, delicacy and athleticism led one admirer to proclaim, “no one has ever come close to her artistry.” 

Jewish fans noted when a Kabbalah red string bracelet adorned Sasha’s wrist. She was a Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame inductee. 

Sasha’s athletic and aesthetic performance mesmerized. Ambitious and complex routines, elegant spirals, breathtaking spins, artistic positioning, leg pointed to the heavens and soaring leaps garnered Sasha numerous awards, including silver (2004, 2005) and bronze (2006) medals in World Championship competition, and a 2006 Olympic silver medal. Actress, model, ballerina, gymnast, romanticist, skater, Sasha appeared an ice goddess – except she was a 5’2”, 95-pound mortal, forever questing for and on the cusp of an elusive perfection. For all her success, Sasha’s trajectory invites the question, “What price glory?”

Like most female Olympic skaters, gymnasts and swimmers, Sasha commenced a grueling schedule of practice and competition while still in elementary school. Enormous and unfulfilled expectations took a toll. Sasha came to view anything less than gold as defeat, and pressure created swings from brilliance to inconsistency. Painful injuries and sleeping pills marked her course. After two early falls during her performance at the Turin Olympics in 2006, Sasha, aside from a brief, abortive comeback, retired from competitive skating at the age of 21. Transitory and muted stints in ice shows, acting, modeling and celebrity journalism left Sasha, in her mid-20s, a has-been, sans vocational skills, social maturity or a clear identity. 

There were no more ovations, sequins and spotlights, only a bleak anonymity. Sasha realized, “I had to be ‘broken in’ to living a real life: managing a bank account, finding an apartment, getting healthcare and filing my tax returns. During my skating days, I had a sort of immunity from all that.” Summoning a new type of courage and resolve, Sasha applied to Columbia University, initially sampling a few courses, then enrolling full time. Relinquishing celebrity –  theatrical makeup replaced by none-too-fashionable eyeglasses – she introduced herself to classmates and professors as “Alex,” a diminutive of her birth name Alexandra. Developing study skills, Sasha earned a degree in political science, with a special interest in the history of income inequality.

After graduation from Columbia in 2016, Sasha encountered challenge and meaning in investment management. She enjoyed her work as an associate at Morgan Stanley Global Financial Services. Although a short-lived first marriage floundered, Sasha found love and stability with her partner Geoffrey Lieberthal, a prominent equity executive. The couple are doting parents to two toddlers, Dashiell Lev and Paloma Jane Lieberthal.

By modeling a balanced presence after premature athletic indentureship, Sasha Cohen merits kudos. Many of our young sports phenoms have paid too high a price, including Raisman and her former gymnast teammate Simone Biles, swimmer Michael Phelps and tennis star Naomi Osaka. The challenge is to encourage youth to create well-rounded lives. 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.