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It took a village to raise Olympic volleyball hopeful

OLYMPICS

Jonathan Winder's father died when he was 4, but friends, known now as the Three Wise Men, stepped in to create a new family dynamic. Winder is working for a spot on the U.S. men's volleyball team.

February 10, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • U.S. Olympic volleyball team hopeful Jonathan Winder, second from right, prays with his family before Thanksgiving dinner last year. Winder's Olympic aspirations owe a lot to the family that stepped forward to help take care of him after Winder's father died when he was a young child.
U.S. Olympic volleyball team hopeful Jonathan Winder, second from right,… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Ninth in a series of occasional stories.

Some dads measure a budding athletic career in trophies or ribbons. Ed Cohan prefers cars.

First he and his boys wore out a Plymouth Voyager whose carpets were perpetually caked with mud from soccer fields and baseball diamonds all over Southern California. Then a Chevrolet Astro van met a similar fate, breaking down and giving way to the Acura TL, which is teetering on the brink of collapse after 150,000 miles.

"We lived in ball fields," he says. "The guys were always in the back seat changing gear. It was just what we did."

Cohan could be making another lengthy trip this summer — to London for the Olympic Games. And here's where the story gets complicated. Cohan is not related to the son he'll be going there to cheer.

Jonathan Winder was 4 when his father died of heart disease, leaving behind a wife and three kids. Immediately a small village stepped forward to resettle the family in Orange County and raise the children as their own. One person was the family counselor, another handled finances while yet another organized the hikes and camp outs.

But Cohan was the lucky one. He got to coach one of the boys who, 22 years later, is on the cusp of making the U.S. volleyball team.

"I told everyone that Jonathan was my son and he had to be on my team," says Cohan, who has two children of his own. "It's just what we did. We had kids that were all going to the same place. It just didn't matter."

It's a kindness the Winders haven't forgotten — least of all Jonathan, who says he owes his Olympic ambitions to the friends his mother, Jean, dubbed the Three Wise Men.

"The Three Wise Men were rocks," Jonathan Winder says. "They just made everything seem so normal. But what they did was truly abnormal."

And the example it left is one he's already begun emulating.

::

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, Cohan, 58, a regional wine manager for a chain of specialty import stores, huddles with Richard Kredel (a.k.a. the Hiker) and Jim Astor (a.k.a. the Counselor) near a fireplace in a corner of the Winders' sprawling Irvine home. The Three Wise Men regularly gather their families plus the Winder family for weekend dinners that draw a crowd most small restaurants would envy.

This, too, is considered normal.

"If you talked to different ones of us around that family, I don't think anybody would say, 'Yeah, this is an obligation,'" says Kredel, the 59-year-old chief financial officer of a small Santa Ana-based foundation that awards grants to Christian organizations. "It wasn't burdensome. I would never say to you 'Gee, yeah, we did that and it was really hard.' It wasn't hard at all."

Astor, 59, an environmental permitting consultant, agrees. "It just seemed like the natural, the right thing to do. But it was unique, I'll say that."

On this particular day, they're celebrating Thanksgiving — even though it's not Thanksgiving. Since there is no top-flight volleyball beyond college in this country, Jonathan Winder has been prepping for the Olympics by playing professionally in Europe — this year in France, the year before in Greece.

So birthdays and holidays have become free-form events determined not by a calendar but by who's in town when.

As for who's a blood relative and who's not, the distinction there has grown a little fuzzy too.

"It's hard for me to distinguish," says Jonathan Winder, 26. "To me, they're much more family than just friends. I grew up around them since I was 4 or 5 and was with them at Christmases, Easters, Thanksgivings, whatever."

And most of those relationships predate the families they've come to define. Kredel and Astor, for example, knew Jonathan Winder's parents before any in the group had even married, much less had children.

Kredel and Astor remember Bill Winder as a strapping former UCLA rower and avid marathoner who worshiped at the same evangelical church as they did. Jonathan Winder would come to inherit his father's size — at 6-foot-8, he's an inch taller than his dad — and athleticism.

What the father never had a chance to pass on was the guidance and support that would mold his two sons and a daughter. That task fell to his friends.

"I really tried to communicate to them that … your biological father is gone now, but you have these great men who are involved in your life as role models," Jean Winder says of Jonathan, his brother, Jordan, and sister, Jenille. "I was really fortunate that these men would take them and mentor them on how to be a man and all that I couldn't communicate. They did more than just sporting events."

But with Jonathan Winder, it was the sporting events that seemed to matter most. And he stood out in all of them.

"Jonathan was great at anything," Cohan says. "He was unbelievable."

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