When Cooper Cohee drew inspiration from his older brother over the last five years, he thought about them wrestling together at home — or some other activity Kaleb didn’t enjoy as much as Cooper did.
“Kaleb tried wrestling for one year but he didn’t like it. I didn’t wrestle him much because if we did we would both get frustrated with each other and almost start to fight,” the Justin-Siena senior recalled last week. “But he wrestled his first and only season all of the way through. Kaleb was not a quitter. After the season, he went up to my dad and told him that he didn’t want to wrestle anymore. He said, ‘I hope you’re not disappointed in me.’ My dad said he wasn’t and that he was proud of him for even trying one of the hardest sports, if not the hardest.
“This is the kind of kid Kaleb was. He was always trying things and supporting me through the things he didn’t even like. He always went to my tournaments even when he didn’t want to go, only because he wanted to be there for me and support throughout the wrestling season.”
Kaleb lost his life on July 6, 2016, shortly after his 14th birthday, from injuries sustained in a dirt bike accident near Omaha, Neb. The five years since have been brutal for Cooper, his little sister, Brynna, and their parents, Rob and Jennifer Cohee.
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One wouldn’t know it from following Cooper’s wrestling career.
He’s been on the varsity since he as a freshman and a team captain since he was a sophomore, when he helped Justin-Siena place a best-ever third in the North Coast Section Duals Tournament. He qualified for the NCS individual tournament as a freshman and sophomore. He went 10-1 as a junior last winter, when no NCS tourney was held due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and placed fourth at the California Folkstyle Championships in Sacramento.
Last Wednesday in Justin-Siena’s Gasser Center, Cooper signed a letter of commitment to continue his wrestling career with Chadron State College — a Division II school in the northwest part of Nebraska, the state where the Cohees lived before moving to Napa in 2015.
Cooper said he hasn’t been back to the Cornhusker State since his brother’s accident, except when Chadron State head coach Brett Hunter invited him out for an official visit.
“When I walked onto the campus, it felt like home,” he said. “Coach Hunter took me to a wrestling practice and I got to see the team lift. They showed me the wrestling room and I loved it right away. At Justin, we have to roll the mats out and put them away every practice, so seeing a wrestling room was a nice feeling. Every one of the wrestlers I met were very welcoming and we talked for a while about wrestling. It just felt nice to be surrounded by wrestlers in a wrestling room.”
He plans to major in business administration or business marketing and hopes to work for a software company in the marketing division.
Tough five years
It’s an impressive accomplishment for a teenager who, along with his parents and sister, witnessed the accident that left his brother with a fatal brain injury.
“Cooper and Brynna watched as we tried frantically to stabilize him while we waited for the medivac to arrive,” Rob recalled.
Kaleb was taken by helicopter to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in nearby Omaha. He passed away 11 days later.
The brothers were just 20 months apart, so it wasn’t easy for Cooper to press on — especially with wrestling. But he did because he knew Kaleb never wanted him to be a quitter, either.
“In seventh grade, my time as an athlete was hard,” recalled Cooper. “I had so much going on in my head after his accident that it was hard to focus on anything. Over time I learned how to turn all of that confusion that was going on in my head into anger and aggression. So wrestling with those feelings helped me as a wrestler wrestling at 90 pounds in the 106-pound weight class as a freshman.
“My brother only got 5,121 days to live. Once I hit those numbers, I had this drive that almost felt like I had to live for him,” Cooper said. “Since I have had more days than he had, I didn’t want to waste them. So coming into high school, and wrestling kids that were way more mature then I was freshman year, I just had this will that no matter what, I want to experience these new things that he didn’t. Even when I was getting whuped in a match, being 10 pounds less than everyone else at my weight, I kept wrestling because at least I got to experience these things. I live for new experiences because I know my brother didn’t.”
He said he doesn’t bring up his brother much unless someone asks.
“As I got older, I started to understand how much of an impact he had on me, so when I talk about him I tell people how great of a person he was,” he said, “not just as an older brother but as a role model.”
Cooper admitted it was hard to have the same kind of relationship with Brynna at first, and not just because she was three years younger — or because she was as much into gymnastics as he was into wrestling.
“For the longest time, it was hard for me to get as close to her as I was with my brother. I didn’t want to put myself in the position of getting hurt again if I lost her,” he said. “So we weren’t that close until the last two years, when she started wrestling. I started to get close with her and saw the kind of drive my brother had in her, so wrestling helped us to be closer and have a strong bond.”
Brynna said it was tough to wrestle her brother, though.
“Cooper is a different breed when it comes to working out and wrestling, so I only wrestle with him at practice sometimes,” she said last week. “I love him but, I don't know why, I feel self-conscious when I work out or wrestle him. He would help me out with my technique, on how to do things, but there's just something scary about him.”
Brynna started competing in gymnastics at age 5 and worked her way up to Level 8, qualifying for regionals, before deciding to leave the sport for wrestling during the 2019-20 wrestling season.
“While she had never wrestled before, the strength and athleticism required to compete at the levels she was competing at in gymnastics directly translated to the mat,” said Rob, who is in his fourth season as an assistant on the staff of Justin-Siena co-coaches Jason Guiducci and Jesse Ward. “She won her first four novice tournaments before stepping up to middle school varsity level competition, where experience begins to count just as much as strength and athleticism. Unfortunately for Brynna and so many other kids that year, COVID put a stop to all that.”
During the lockdown, Rob said, Cooper and Brynna turned the garage into a gym. With weights on one side and a wrestling mat on the other, Cooper worked with Brynna on improving her skills.
“I started wrestling because both Cooper and my dad wrestle or wrestled,” she said. “I’ve been around it my whole life, so it's not like I didn't know anything. It wasn't intimidating to me, I think, because people have told me I look mean and I am also strong and athletic. One thing it most definitely wasn't was a guy's sport. I had gone to enough tournaments, and eventually duals, to know that girls do it and do it well.”
More stress on the family
She has joined her brother on the Braves as a freshman this season, giving them another competitive Cohee for possibly four more years. But her wrestling career was in doubt just nine months ago.
“As the 2020-21 (spring) season approached, Brynna wasn't quite right,” Rob recalled. “Her attempts at wrestling practice were leaving her exhausted, her color was off, and she was losing weight at frightening pace. After several weeks of testing and a trip to the emergency room, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. It took her months to regain her strength enough to get back to feeling normal.”
The condition affects the digestive system.
“Nine months ago, I wanted to start wrestling again but when I went to practice, I couldn't do anything,” Brynna said. “We were practicing shots and I had to sit down because I was so dizzy. I thought I was just really out of shape. Turns out I was anemic, really anemic. I was sent to the ER and had to get a blood transfusion and an iron transfusion. The problem was, we couldn't figure out why I was anemic. After running a couple of tests and many, many blood draws, we figured out it was ulcerative colitis.
“I now have to be mindful of what I eat and take medication that really helps me deal with it, but life's a lot better since nine months ago.”
She was only 9 when Kaleb passed away and found it more of a distraction than a motivator at first.
“As a gymnast, we have to do many scary things,” she said. “One of the things that terrified me most was bars, specifically giants. It just happened one day, out of the blue: I could not seem to get the thought of me getting hurt out of my head. To try to get myself to do it, I would say ‘Do it for Kaleb.’ By saying that, I put too much pressure on myself. I may have done it ‘in his name’ a couple of times. Eventually, it got too hard to deal with all my struggles at once, so I quit.”
Both children said Rob and Jennifer have been there for them.
“My parents have done and offered everything they can to help me through both Kaleb's passing and my ulcerative colitis,” Brynna said. “They've offered me therapy multiple times. They let me know they’re there for me if I need to talk. They were extremely worried about me when I got sick. They took me to the doctors multiple times, got me the medication I needed, and did more than I would have asked of them.”
Added Cooper, “My parents the past years have been my biggest supporters in every way possible. They are my No. 1 fans, always pushing me to do better because they know I can. They have played the biggest role in getting through my tough time, always supporting me through school, even when I was struggling. They always have my back even when I don’t want it.”
Rob said that having lived in Napa only a year when Kaleb died brought the family together.
“The few friends the kids had here didn't even know much about what happened. So as you could imagine, we as a family — especially Cooper and Brynna — had to lean on each other for strength and used sports as a means to cope,” he said.
Support from coaches
Guiducci said Rob started volunteering as an assistant coach when Cooper wrestled as a sixth, seventh and eighth grader for the Napa Sheriff’s Activities League club coached by Deputy Ward, and that he and Ward welcomed him when he inquired about joining their staff.
“My dad implemented in me at a young age be the hardest working kid in the room,” Cooper said. “He is always pushing me during practices making me do the things I don’t want to do, but need to do, to get better.
“Jesse Ward has been coaching me since sixth grade and he’s a technician. He always shows me the little things I need to do when working moves making my moves better. He makes practices fun by being the chill relaxed coach, having us play games and just trying to get us to be having a good time during practice. Jason Guiducci has also been coaching me since sixth grade he’s always been motivating me to go further and showing me how to be a leader. He always gives me the go-ahead to lead practice and drills, making me a better leader.”
Cooper said he has also trained since the sixth grade with two sets of brothers — former Vintage High head coach Travis Newton and former Napa High assistant coach Jared Newton, at their Newtons’ Law of Fitness facility in Napa, and his coach’s sons, 2021 Justin-Siena graduate Jacob Guiducci and current junior teammate Brandon Guiducci.
“(The Newtons) always pushed me in the weight room and the wrestling mat,” he said of the former Napa High grapplers. “They both went to college for wrestling and they showed me their knowledge of the sport. Brandon and Jacob have been my wrestling partners since sixth grade. Growing up with these two on the mat made me a better wrestler. Jacob, who is now in college, was the most challenging wrestler I’ve ever wrestled. He’s tough, which made me tougher.”
Jason Guiducci has been impressed with resiliency of Rob’s son over the years.
“Cooper's journey has been a blessing to be a part of. He has brought so much to our program and has lifted up those around him,” Guiducci said. “Though he has worked tremendously hard to become the greatest individual wrestler he can be, he has also given outside of himself and elevated his teammates.”
Guiducci recalled saying at Cooper’s signing ceremony, “As you head into your senior year, there will be no medal, no trophy, no banner or pennant that will define your legacy. Take a look in front of you,” before pointing at the crowd of teammates and classmates in attendance. “That is your legacy. You have inspired them all and made them better. They are your legacy and you will be remembered for what you did for them.”
The coach said Cooper has had to step off the mat at a practice or tournament at times over the years “to blow off steam or recalibrate, but the mat has been his solace. I never have witnessed him attempt to quit.”
At the Braves’ season-ending banquet, where each coach presents a Coach’s Award, Rob has named his Courage Award in honor of Kaleb.
“It is awarded to an individual who mirrors Kaleb’s courage,” Guiducci said. “When presenting it, Coach Rob delves into the story of Kaleb. No matter how many years I’ve heard it, there’s never a dry eye.”
Rob is happy to have Brynna help him and Cooper with the Braves’ mission.
“These two are great kids who have been through hell together,” Rob said. “Yet they simply love to compete, love wrestling, and do what they can to help grow the sport here in Napa, especially at Justin-Siena.”
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