World’s Strongest Man-dolinist, Elie Cohen

When you think about it for a minute, playing music and competitive fitness have a lot in common. Both require a ton of determination, a passionate commitment to repetitive practice, and a desire to show off the results to large numbers of people.

So perhaps it’s no surprise to see them combined in the bluegrass world.

On Wednesday night, June 13, Elie Cohen of Atlanta, will be seen on American Ninja Warrior on NBC. The show features extreme athletes competing on a course that tests their strength, dexterity, durability, climbing ability and overall fitness. Despite the title, there is no hand-to-hand combat, but it may feel that way to those who complete the course.

Elie is also a civil engineering student at Georgia Tech, and a bluegrass mandolinist. Before auditioning for a spot on the show, he had mostly focused on rock climbing, though he had started a ninja course training program at Camp Ramah Darom in nearby Clayton, GA.

Like any of these reality competition programs on television, you need to submit an audition, and Cohen decided to use his mandolin skills to help him stand out in the process. He sent in a video that showed off his ripped physique, his prowess on a ninja course, and his bluegrass abilities.

He called it The World’s Strongest Mandolinist.

And it worked. After several brutal weeks of waiting, Cohen got the call, and was invited to Miami in April to compete. Of course, he’s forbidden to talk about how he did until the show airs on Wednesday, but he told us last week that he had a blast.

“I’ve always been a pretty big fan of the show. I watched it a lot when I was in high school. Watching on TV you think… I could do that. But when you actually do it, it’s a lot harder.

They don’t give you any run throughs… can’t touch anything on the course until you run it. And they try to keep the details of the course for each new season a secret. You do get a walkthrough before your run.

I found it very similar to rock climbing. That’s my thing.”

And the producers loved the mandolin angle, so they asked him to play a little bit before starting the course.

“I played a jam on Old Dangerfield. I was a little concerned about doing it, because I wanted to be focused on the course. So I brought my case and set it on the platform so that I could put the mandolin right back before I ran.”

Fitness and bluegrass bugs both bit Elie while he was in high school, though he played guitar for a while before switching to mandolin. He claims Chris Thile as a big influence, and Jesse Cobb as a favorite. Plus David Grisman and Sam Bush.

We’ll have to wait a couple of days to see how he does on American Ninja Warrior, but Cohen says he’s already decided to audition again next year. And he plans to write a couple of original bluegrass numbers to sing for the judges.

He agrees that fitness and music make a good match.

“I like fitness, and I’m a mandolinist – a bluegrass man. I branded myself the world’s strongest mandolinist, the bluegrass ninja. I represent everyone.”

The bluegrass world will surely be cheering him on Wednesday night!

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.