It took a village to raise Olympic volleyball hopeful

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.

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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."

However, the Three Wise Men agreed that Jonathan Winder had a greater chance at success in volleyball than anywhere else, so they steered him from one court to another, and by the time he was 15, he was playing for the U.S. junior national team.

From there he went to Pepperdine, where he led the Waves to two NCAA finals and became an All-American. But if the Three Wise Men wondered whether the life lessons they taught him had been understood, the answer came during Jonathan Winder's senior year, when he became a Big Brother to the 9-year-old son of a single mother from Santa Monica.

"We would play soccer, football, go to the beach, library," Jonathan Winder says. "I even went to church with him and his family once. He has a great mom, and it was a time for me to do some things that maybe she could not do all the time with him, like run around and play soccer.

"It definitely reminded me of my life. God blessed me with so many awesome guys to do these things with me that it inspires me to provide that for someone else."

And this is where the complicated story gets a little easier to understand. It turns out that Cohan grew up just like Jonathan.

"My father left my mother," he says, recounting a story he's largely kept secret. "He didn't die. He walked out on her. I came from a split family. I'm different from all of these guys."

So Cohan also became a Big Brother in college, then mentored Jonathan and his own son, Eddie Jr.

"Our kids mimic us. There is no doubt about it," he says. "It's a perspective. And we've handed it down to our children, and hopefully our children will hand it down to their children."

Or to someone else's children — which is why Jonathan says the Olympic Games are no longer about him. Now it's a way of clearing his debt to the Three Wise Men by giving back through the foundation he's planning for children without fathers.

"As I've looked into it more, I've just been overwhelmed by the need," says Jonathan, who has put the foundation on hold as he prepares for the London Games. "So that's something I plan on doing for the rest of my life.

"Regardless of the Olympics or my future career, I always want serving the fatherless to be a main part of what I do with my life."

It's a project that could use the kind of boost an Olympic gold medal would provide. But there are a number of hurdles left to clear.

First the U.S. has to earn a berth in the London Games — something it could do by winning either the NORCEA Continental Qualifier in May or one of three four-team qualifying tournaments in June. Then Jonathan has to make the team, a task made more difficult by the fact that he's one of four setters fighting for just two spots.

"It's a long way to go," Jonathan says. "We've got so many matches, so many games, a lot more travel, a lot of practice.

"I don't know if I'm going or not."

One thing is certain though: If he does go, he won't be going alone.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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