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Family, friends remember former Skyline cheerleader, Dani Cogswell
Mindy Carland was in Pennsylvania visiting family when she heard the news. Her daughter, Danielle "Dani" Cogswell, a Skyline graduate currently attending the University of Louisville, had been found dead in her apartment.
"It was the worst day of my life," Carland said.
Dani, a former Skyline cheerleader, was 22 and had just completed her first year as a flyer on the Louisville cheerleading squad. Mindy said that her and her mother had FaceTimed Dani on Sunday, July 27 at approximately 9 p.m.
"We talked for about half an hour and everything was fine," Carland said. "We said I love you and will talk to you tomorrow."
But they didn't talk the next day. On the morning of July 28, friends of Dani became concerned about her whereabouts and contacted her sister, Alex, who then called Carland. Neither had spoken with Dani that morning.
"It was not until around 11:30 a.m. or so that I finally got a call from her cheer coach telling me that Dani had passed away," Carland said. "I kept thinking she is totally fine and once I get there with her, she will be okay."
Carland was in her hotel room when she got off the phone and fell to her knees crying, praying it was all untrue. She then called Dani's father, Glenn Cogswell, who was just getting into work.
"He lost it as well and had to get a ride home he was so upset," Carland said. "He kept saying, 'Our little girl is gone.'"
Carland and Cogswell divorced in 1998 after moving to Sammamish, but remain extremely close. They said that when Dani and Alex were growing up, they always made it a priority to put them first, no matter what.
"Glenn is the most loving, generous and giving father that any child could ever have," Carland said. "He works so hard to make sure his daughters have a good life and a good education...his daughters are his life."
Dani was an influential addition to athletic community in Sammamish, having started her career at a very young age. Cogswell and Carland said that when Dani was just 3-years-old, recruiters began telling them that they had to get her competitively involved in gymnastics. So that's what they did. And at age 10, she participated in the USA Gymnastics TOPs Program, a talent search and educational program for female gymnasts ages 7-10.
For two months, Dani was evaluated on her physical abilities and ended up receiving the highest TOP test score ever recorded in Washington state. From there, she participated in the national test where Shawn Johnson, 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist, was her roommate. Dani ended up in third place, so it was no surprise when recruiters asked to work with her. But elite training was in Houston, and Dani didn't want to leave her friends in Sammamish.
"You have to be 100 percent committed and that's going to be your life," Carland said. "Dani didn't want to do that. And when Dani made up her mind, she made up her mind."
Cogswell said that once Dani got into her high school years, she decided that she didn't want to do gymnastics anymore. He was slightly pissed, he said, but just because she was so good.
"With Dani's talent, she could have easily gotten a college scholarship...without even practicing," he said. "But her personality was way bigger than that."
Dani switched over to cheerleading in 9th grade and joined the Skyline High School program.
“She was this amazingly talented little girl with a smile as big as her head,” said Stephania Lemeshko, Dani’s coach and teacher at Skyline. “Dani had more God-given natural athletic ability than any athlete I have ever had the privilege to work with.”
But their relationship was more than that — Lemeshko said that as her coach, teacher and mentor, they spent an incredible amount of time together and developed a very deep bond.
“I loved her like a little sister,” she said. “I shared her joys and her frustrations as I watched her grow into the woman she was becoming. We still talked regularly when she left for college.”
After leading her high school squad to a state championship in 2009 and graduating in 2010, Dani decided to take a break from both gymnastics and cheer and instead focus on school. She enrolled at Arizona State University where her older sister was currently a sophomore. But after one year, Dani decided it wasn't for her. She moved back to Sammamish, enrolled at Bellevue College and began helping out with the Skyline cheer team.
“I was thrilled to have her on staff,” Lemeshko said. “Truthfully, she was the best assistant coach I had ever had.’”
While on the road for a tournament, Dani ran into the University of Louisville cheer coach who told her he was interested in having her on the team. So Dani enrolled at the University of Louisville and joined the Cardinals prestigious cheer squad, who have won nine National Cheerleading Association championships in the past 15 years.
Louisville's head cheerleading coach Todd Sharp said Dani was not only a world class athlete, but was a beautiful girl inside out - the kind of student you never heard a negative word about.
And with Dani's death still under investigation, those who knew her took to social media to express their sadness, confusion and say their goodbyes using the hashtag #RIPDani.
Chelsea Lucas, a Louisville teammate, wrote on Facebook, "You were absolutely beautiful inside and out. I'll forever cherish those moments I was blessed to spend with you."
Sandy Spokoiny-Flores, owner of Emerald City Gymnastics Academy where Dani trained, also wrote, "These kids walk into our clubs and their lives become revolved around this sport. Day after day, weekend after weekend, we're together as a family.”
Another Louisville teammate said, "Heaven has gained an angel, but why before your wings were fully spread? You are missed more then you will ever know."
Dani’s memorial service was held on August 4 at Pine Lake Covenant Church in Sammamish. Her best friend, Kelly Butler, spoke about how special Dani was, not just to her personally, but to everyone that surrounded her.
Butler said there were things Dani taught a lot of people, like 'embracing your weird.' Butler said that Dani was all about being an individual and doing things that others didn't always understand.
"She taught me how to make fun of myself, how to respect myself and how to embrace those parts of me that were ultimately unique," Butler said. "She truly believed that, at your weird-ess, you're happiest. There was never a dull moment with her."
Lemeshko, who also spoke, said it was one of the hardest days of her life.
“When I got up to speak, my knees were shaking," she said. "I just wanted to do her justice.”
Lemeshko, who teaches business and marketing at Skyline and heads their DECA program, said she has been a public speaker her entire life and never gets nervous. But on August 4, she was.
“It was the most important speech I have ever given,” she said. “It just mattered more than anything I have ever done.”
Carland said their family is receiving a lot of support and she just started going to church services held by pastor Steve Gutzler, who conducted Dani's service.
"I did not grow up religious, but now I know that the only one that will help me through this difficult time is God," she said. "I need to find peace."
Carland said that she’s been visiting the cemetery where Dani is buried every night. Last week, Carland laid on top of Dani’s grave and said the sun was shining perfectly through the trees, into her eyes.
“I do believe that that was Dani,” she said. “I sat there and knew she was letting me know that she’s okay.”
Carland said she greatly appreciates those who have reached out, but thinks the best support will be from other grieving parents who understand what her and Glenn are going through. She is, however, happy that Dani went peacefully and that she was able to see her before the burial.
“We buried her in her favorite Chicago Bulls jersey and basketball shorts,” Carland said.
It was her trademark outfit.
"She didn't care what anybody thought," Carland said. “She was funny, energetic...I’m honored that she was our daughter.”
Butler said she is very confident in the fact that Dani is a good place, that she's happy and that she wants people to move on with her lives.
"She was always very proud of the people she cared about," Butler said. "I can hear her voice in my head giving me a slap on the wrist when I'm a baby about it. I know she would be very angry at us if she knew it was getting in the way of us living our lives."
Tee shirts were created by a Louisville alumni to raise money for Dani's family — they are $15 and say "L's up for Dani."
“I believe that the cheer community is actually pretty small and many people from coast to coast got to work with her,” Lemeshko said. “Many people were inspired by her sheer ability and skill, but also what a fun, loving person she was. Everyone wanted to be Dani’s friend.”
Those interested in buying a shirt and donating to Dani’s memorial fund, which will give out scholarships to cheerleaders in need, can email Shapel Lacey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Skyline Cheer has become the program it has directly because of the talent, skill and coaching that Dani brought to it. Her memory will live on through the people’s lives that she touched and I know she will continue to inspire all current and future cheerleaders,” Lemeshko said. “She will always live on at Skyline.”