Recovering Cheerleader Climbs a New Pyramid

Recovering Cheerleader Climbs a New Pyramid

Rutgers sophomore Skye Cotler suffers stroke and finds strength in Rutgers family

Skye Cotler
Skye Cotler says her teammates have been supportive, offering rides, pep talks and making sure she is rarely alone.
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

'Being a Rutgers student is the one piece of Cotler’s identity that the stroke hasn’t stripped from her.'
– Laura Thompson, Skye Cotler's mother

Skye Cotler is a flyer.

The bubbly Rutgers cheerleader has been on top of the heap – literally – since age 4. She feels most alive when airborne, blonde hair billowing as her body flips and twists.

Anyone who spends that much time going up knows a thing or two about coming down: dust off and climb the pyramid again.

“I think cheerleading has taught me a lot of things,” said the sophomore psychology major from Barnegat, New Jersey. “If you fall down, get back up, keep going and never ever give up.”

Six weeks after suffering a stroke, the 19-year-old is applying that same positive attitude to her recovery. “There are going to be bumps in the road,” she said.  “If you want to be successful, you have to push past that and dig deeper. I want to get past it, and I will get past it.”

“It” refers to the cavernoma, a cluster of abnormal blood vessels on the brain, that doctors suspect bled and caused Cotler’s Aug. 16 stroke while she was en route to a Maroon 5 concert in Atlantic City.

“I felt like my leg was twisted. I told my friend, ‘I think I’m going to have a seizure.’ My body got tense and tight,” said Cotler, who was in the back row of her mother’s mini van stuck in traffic on the Parkway. “My mom won’t tell me exactly what happened. But I don’t think I was breathing for a bit. I woke up on the side of the road to an ambulance. I thought I was dying.”

Once stabilized, the questions began to swirl. Will I need brain surgery? Medication? Was this a freak occurrence? Or is another stroke – one that could kill me – looming?

Doctors can’t be sure of Cotler’s prognosis until the blood on her brain is reabsorbed and an MRI provides a clearer picture. One thing Cotler is sure of is her decision to return to Rutgers. “My first thought in the hospital, after ‘am I going to die?’  was ‘when can I get back to school?’” she said. “Everyone wanted me to take the semester off. I just wanted to have some sense of normalcy.”

That’s because being a Rutgers student is the one piece of Cotler’s identity that the stroke hasn’t stripped from her, said her mother, Laura Thompson. “Skye was born with the natural gift of acrobatics and cheerleading. She lost that identity. No more cheerleading. No more driving,” said the single mother of four. “All she had left was being a Rutgers student. This is what is keeping her inspired to keep going.”

Cotler continues to experience symptoms – pain in her legs, sore arms, fatigue – and can’t tell whether they are just residual effects or signs that another brain bleed is impending. “There is a little fear in me every day when I wake up, before I go to bed,” she said. “You never know what’s going to happen. It’s a new thing. Everything is unclear to me.”

Especially learning to acclimate to life after cheerleading.

Thompson can barely remember a time when her daughter was not performing aerial acrobatics. “Her name is even Skye,” she said, “everything about it was meant to be.”

Skye Cotler
Skye Cotler says cheerleading taught her that "if you fall down, get back up and keep going."
Photo: Courtsesy of Skye Cotler
Sitting on the sidelines with her team for the first game was bittersweet for Cotler.

“I go to practice sometimes when I think I can bear it. They are all my best friends, and they are doing what I love to do and can’t anymore,” she said. It’s hard. But she is learning to accept it. “I’m creating a new normal, and that’s just going have to do for now.”

Cotler said her teammates, several of whom she lives with in a College Avenue house, have been supportive – offering rides, pep talks and making sure she is rarely alone.

“My team has been awesome. I don’t know if my transition would have been as good without them or my coach [Lauren Louis],” she said. “Every day she texts me and checks in.  She just made me feel so comfortable in such an uncomfortable time.”

Louis, now in her second year as coach of the university’s all girls cheer squad, gets how big of a blow this is for an athlete like Cotler.

“Their identity is being a Rutgers cheerleader. That is something they are very proud of,” said Louis, who describes Cotler as a “naturally high-spirited person” with contagious energy. “It’s really hard to be a cheerleader in a school as big as Rutgers. 

The girls on our team know it’s a privilege and have worked really hard to be there.”

Louis said she is proud of Cotler for the courage she displayed by returning to school and of her team for rallying around her.

“Although not everyone knows what she’s going through, I want her to know she doesn’t have to go through it alone,” Louis said. “Just because she can’t be physically on the field, she’s still a member of the team. That will never change.”

Cotler said she’s been overwhelmed by the encouragement she’s received from the greater Rutgers community, both through social media outlets and the GoFundMe page Thompson set up to help cover her daughter’s mounting medical expenses.

“People I don’t even know from Rutgers have been reaching out, Facebook messaging me, following me on Instagram and checking in,” Cotler said. “I would say the Rutgers family is real. I have so much support here.”   

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