At just 15 years of age, Temeka Wirkkala had been a rising star athlete at her high school in Red Wing, playing on her school's basketball team and competing at the varsity level in both cross country and track and field.
"As a minority, I always felt I had to prove myself to my peers, so I pushed myself to run faster and jump higher and farther," Wirkkala said.
During a basketball game, Wirkkala stole the ball and drove down the court on a fastbreak lay-up. As she went up for the shot, her opponent took her to the ground. Upon landing, Wirkkala's leg ended up behind her back. She was carried off of the court and was encouraged to ice it over the next few weeks.
Not seeing any improvements, Wirkkala made an appointment with her physician. She then learned she had a torn meniscus and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery.
Wirkkala was eager to get back on the court and worked extra hard to strengthen her knee. A few weeks later, although not 100 percent, her surgeon and physical therapist decided she was ready. As luck would have it, Wirkkala slipped on a puddle of water and fell while getting ready for her first game back.
This time around, Wirkkala had anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction which results in a recovery time of 6 to 8 months. Wirkkala assumed that she would bounce back much sooner because of her strength and commitment. No one prepared her for just how hard it was going to be.
As her senior year approached, Wirkkala was still unable to complete a full practice. She started missing practices and eventually became very depressed, conflicted and bitter about how much her life had changed.
"I had big plans to go on to be a college athlete, but lost my scholarship because I was not able to function," Wirkkala said. "I eventually just gave up on sports altogether, which led to me losing my way."
After graduating high school, Wirkkala made some bad choices and just couldn't find the right path to take in life. Moving to Oregon to live with her sister, she started hanging out at the neighborhood basketball courts with a group of men ranging in age from 18 to 45. It was there that she learned how to love the sport again.
"Playing with men that were physically and mentally stronger than me pushed me to new limits. I slowly gained back my speed and agility and could feel myself getting stronger," Wirkkala said.
Returning to her roots
Feeling stronger than ever, Wirkkala moved back to Red Wing to be closer to her family. Over the next few years, she found a new love in working with children with behavioral issues.
"They weren't the only ones learning. They taught me how to appreciate the small things in life and to get back to doing things I once enjoyed, including sledding and snowshoeing," remembers Wirkkala. "They needed me just as much as I needed them."
One night while bending down to give her son a hug, Wirkkala's knee gave out and she fell crashing to the floor. The MRI results were alarming. At age 31, Wirkkala was told that she had the knee of an 84-year old and would need a total joint replacement.
After having her fourth procedure done on her knee, Wirkkala hit rock bottom. She lost her job, wasn't able to coach her kids in t-ball, and struggled just to get around. After a year of limping around and losing precious time with her children, Wirkkala decided to make a change.
Her physician referred her to Rehabilitation Services at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing. She met Taylor "TJ" Helmus, a physical therapist who designed a plan for Wirkkala to follow that included strength training exercises for her to do at home. Wirkkala admits that she did not feel like she was progressing fast enough and did not always give 110 percent.
But as her sessions with Helmus continued, the two formed a bond.
"TJ is a very intuitive and honest person," Wirkkala said. "He made me take a hard look at my own lifestyle and made me responsible for my own health and well-being."
Together they set realistic goals, and over time Wirkkala had more energy, started eating differently and her body physically changed, looking more toned and chiseled. Wirkkala was finally able to enjoy playing with her children again without being in pain.
"Watching Temeka transform back into the woman she lost so long ago has been an amazing journey," Helmus said. "Despite the minor setbacks, which are very natural in an ACL reconstruction, she overcame those challenges and took control of her life and is now living it to the fullest."
"Ultimately, I thank God for allowing me to find TJ. With TJ's help I was able to find my confidence again. He was my partner, my voice of reason and I am where I am today because of him," Wirkkala added.
"He believed in me, so I started believing in myself again and now I have my smile back."