Physical activity has always been a major part of LT Wimberley-Helmick’s life. She’s been an avid athlete, a coach, a referee and umpire, a martial arts champion and a police officer, as well as an elementary and high school educator. But at one point her in life, it looked like her days in the gym and on the field were over. Just after the birth of her youngest child, Wimberley-Helmick suffered a spinal injury that left her in constant pain, continually reliant on a wheelchair, forearm crutches or cane, and with clinical depression.
Not only faced with her own health issues, over the years, Wimberley-Helmick has been a caregiver for her husband, Peter (he had a kidney transplant in 2016), her mother (she passed away from lung cancer in 2012), and now her 92-year-old father, a World War II veteran.
In 2010, she began her journey back to karate. She’s since earned her second-, third-, and fourth-degree black belts, and today she owns a karate studio, Infinitus Martial Arts, where she is sensei. In 2014, she considers a full comeback to the organization she loves to win the first-ever Norris Cup for senior women.
Wacoan writer Kathleen Seaman spoke with Wimberley-Helmick about her fight and determination to overcome her physical challenges and the lasting effect they had on her career, her mental health and her family, especially her husband, Peter, and three daughters, Rebecca (Becca), Samantha (Sami), and Deidre (DD).
WACOAN: You had a spinal injury in 1994. What exactly happened?
Wimberly-Helmick: It was a combination of things. I gave birth to my last daughter, [Deidre], by [caesarean section], and I knew that the spinal injection hadn’t been great. I knew that it weakened something.
I had been an avid athlete up till then: officiated, played ball, shortstop on guys’ softball teams, point guard on guys’ basketball teams and everything else. I was back coaching high school volleyball. [The school] called me up and said, ‘We just lost our coach. Would you come coach?’
I said ‘Sure, but I’m going to have a kid.’
They said, ‘That’s OK. We’ll get you an assistant coach.’
Well three days after my C-section, I’m coaching at a volleyball game. Twenty days after my C-section, my principal called me and said, ‘Your sub is killing your classroom. Can you come back early?’ So, I kind of pushed the envelope.
I’ve always been a Type A personality. And when you have hidden injuries that people can’t see, [they think], ‘Oh, everything must be fine.’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a little sore, but you know, I’ll be fine.’ So I went back [to work] and started teaching full time.
WACOAN: When was your daughter born?
Wimberly-Helmick: She was born September 15, , and I started a new job in a rather tough school district in California in January . These kids had been through nothing but subs, so they were super nondisciplined, super disrespectful. First day, I broke up two fights on campus. I just hit the ground running like I always do.[At the end of one day], in their exuberance to get out, this one kid took the corner and knocked a desk over. This was in March, so it would have been about five months after my C-section — and I reached over and grabbed the desk, lifted it up and just dropped it. I had this disgusting, sickening feeling.
I did the full Tim Conway shuffle all the way across campus, and [the front office worker] said, ‘You look gray.’
I go, ‘Yeah, I think I hurt my back.’
‘Oh, my. Well, fill out these forms.’ Filled out 10,000 forms. Then I walked outside to the handicap ramp.
I figured, OK, I pinched something. I’ll unpinch it, and gravity will take care of it. I walked up to the ramp, [grabbed the handrail with both hands and] lifted myself up and let my legs dangle. I thought somebody ripped my legs off. My back — instantaneous pain. Basically, what had happened is I pinched off the L4 nerve that fed my right leg.
I get to the doctor’s office, and the [physician assistant] tells me I pulled a muscle, and I said, ‘Honey, trust me, I’ve pulled enough muscles in my life. This doesn’t feel right. It’s like electricity shooting through my legs.’[The PA] said, ‘Oh no, I think [pulling a muscle is] what you did.’
WACOAN: Did you slow down after that?
Wimberly-Helmick: Well, believe it or not, I had my tryouts for the NCAA baseball umpiring, and I did three innings that night. How I got through it, I don’t know, but I got through it. Later they called me and said, ‘You’re in,’ and I said, ‘Well, I ruptured four discs in my back, and I can barely walk right now so I can’t do it.’ So, I had to pass.
After two months of physical therapy where they’re strapping me into an apparatus and I’m doing situps and other things — and I am in excruciating pain, can’t sleep — I go into physical therapy, and they go, ‘You don’t look good.’
I go, ‘Dude, I have a constant headache, constant stomachache. My body hurts all the time. My legs are screaming at me.’
Finally, they asked enough questions. They said, ‘Does it feel like electricity shooting through your legs?’ I go, ‘Yeah, like somebody shoved me into a light socket.’
‘Oh, crap.’ They called who had ordered the therapy, and they said, ‘Stop physical therapy. You need to see somebody and get a scan.’ An orthopedic surgeon did the scan, [and I had] four ruptured discs, from [vertebrae] L2 to S1.
He wants to do surgery immediately, and I said, ‘No offense, but you’re an orthopedic surgeon. If it’s nerves, spinal, I want somebody with a little more expertise.’
I went all the way across to West Los Angeles to a doctor. He did an MRI, and his comment was, ‘You can step off a curb or roll over in bed, and you will lose your right leg. We need to do surgery. We need to do it fast.’ So I said OK. He goes, ‘Why don’t we wait until after Christmas?’
Well, this started in March, and it’s now October. I said, ‘Dude, I want to get back to school in January. I’ve already lost fall.’
He said, ‘Well, I have a restriction. I cannot do surgery until January because I hurt my back, and they won’t let me do surgery until I’m cleared. But I have a good friend, and he’s a neurosurgeon.’
He was chief of surgery, and he had all these accolades. And he told me all those accolades. I will never trust a doctor that tells me all his accolades again.
WACOAN: Were there problems with the surgery?
Wimberly-Helmick: He thought he could do a discectomy, [surgery to remove the damaged portion of a herniated disk in the spine]. So he tried the discectomy. It did nothing. That was December 7 of ’94.
In January, they went in and did a laminectomy [a procedure to enlarge the spinal canal to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerves]. He came out and told my parents and my husband that he had found a torn root sleeve and I had spinal leakage, but he had grafted everything, and I would be fine.
I woke up, and the room was spinning. I knew there was a problem when physical therapy came in that afternoon. I’m throwing the covers off, and [the therapist] goes, ‘Oh, we’ll just wait and talk a little bit.’
I thought, ‘Well, that’s weird.’ Physical therapists are like, ‘Get up, get up, get up, move.’ And we just talked.
He says, ‘OK. Um, well, let’s just sit you on the edge of the bed.’ He puts the big canvas strap around my back and swings my legs off, because my legs were not wanting to move on their own. I’m sitting there on the edge of the bed, and the room was just spinning. He said, ‘OK, well that’s good enough for today,’ and puts my legs back into the bed and tucks me in. He goes, ‘OK, I’ll see you tomorrow.’
I thought, ‘That was kind of weird.’
He comes in the next day with [another therapist], and he goes, ‘Hey, how are you doing today? Any better?’ Little chit-chat stuff. Nice guys. I just say, ‘Uh, yeah, I’m ready to go. Let’s do this.’
They get me out of bed, and they put the [strap around me] and lift me up by two arms. I’m standing there doing the weeble-wobble, and I can see them kind of looking at each other. I said, ‘So do you want me to walk?’
He goes, ‘No! This is good. We’re just going to sit you back down in bed.’
This goes on for days. I mean, I might take like one step. So finally, about the fourth day when he comes in, I said, ‘OK, I’ve got to ask you. Usually they want you up and running around and doing crazy stuff.’
He goes, ‘Honey, I knew the first day I walked in this room, you were whiter than the walls. There was no way in the world I was going to get you up. Something’s not right.’ He knew something wasn’t right.
WACOAN: What was the projected recovery?
Wimberly-Helmick: I’m supposed to be out in three days. In two weeks, I’m supposed to have my stitches out. In three weeks, I’m supposed to start full-blown physical therapy.
I’m in the hospital for eight days. I don’t see [the doctor] for another two weeks, three weeks [after surgery]. I go in, and my husband said [the doctor] was literally on his hands and knees trying to get these staples out. He’s having a heck of a time getting the staples out of my back because they’d been in there longer than they should have been.
Then he goes, ‘OK, come back and see me in a couple of weeks.’ So, I come back and see him, and I am no better.
At this point, I can stand for maybe 30 seconds to two minutes before I start shaking. Not just from the pain. My body, it’s like somebody flipped a switch, and it’d be like, ‘That’s it. You better find a seat real fast.’
WACOAN: So you weren’t able to walk around, and you had three young kids. What did you do?
Wimberly-Helmick: I had a 5-month-old, a 2-year-old, and an 8-year-old when I got hurt. I said, ‘I think we need to find like a little scooter or something.’ We found a cheap old wheelchair that folded up, so I could go out and wheel around in the backyard and stuff. I would get tired and shaky, but I’m already sitting, so I’d put on the brakes. That way I could be out and play with the kids.
We go back the two weeks later, and the doctor tries this come-back-in-two-weeks again. My husband stood in front of the door and said, ‘She has some questions for you.’ He turns around and goes, ‘Well, what?’
I went through the laundry list of everything, and I said, ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Well, some patients have residual problems, and you know, you just had that discectomy and then six weeks later we had the laminectomy, and it’s only been six weeks and some people just take a little longer,’ and this and that. He just gave me this BS stuff.
When I’m leaving — it was the last time I ever went to his office — his receptionist says, ‘Hey, LT, here’s a receipt.’ I don’t have a receipt. It’s all workers’ compensation.
I wheeled back over to him, and I go, ‘Receipt?’
He looks at me and says, ‘Yeah. Remember that receipt I needed to give you?’ And he folds up this paper and gives it to me. It is the dictation of [the doctor] saying that he tore the root sleeve in the surgery. So, he didn’t find a torn root sleeve; he tore the root sleeve.
I went to [my workers’ comp lawyer] immediately with this piece of paper and said, ‘Dude, can we do anything about this?’
He said, ‘Well, this is not my [expertise], but I’ll send you to two of my best guys.’
I met with both of them, and they said, ‘It’s a 50-50 crap shoot. [The doctor] will get people that say that’s just the nature of the beast and that accidents happen. There’s no guarantees.’ So absolutely nothing happened, and I go on trying to live my life.
WACOAN: Did you find another doctor?
Wimberly-Helmick: I find a lady that is just getting ready to retire, Dr. Kathleen Egan in Pasadena, and she agreed to take me, workers’ comp and post-surgery, which is just about unheard of.
At first, I think she thought I was a malinger. I kept telling her the things I tried to do and the things I can’t do, and then she started realizing, ‘OK, she wants to be an active person. It’s not that she’s just a lard and wants to recoup anything she can get.’ She [orders] me an [electromyography test], and they literally stick these needles into your muscle mass, and it measures the impulses that are going through your muscles.
The [technician] did my right leg, and she goes, ‘OK, tighten up your leg.’ I tightened it up, and all these [wavey] lines are going across. And she goes, ‘OK, relax.’ Nothing changed. And she goes, ‘No, seriously relax.’
She comes over and lifts up my leg and drops it, and my leg just falls. And she goes, ‘Oh, s—, you are relaxed. OK, you’re f—ed.’ That’s exactly what she said.
I went, ‘Excuse me?’ And she goes, ‘Sorry, but you seemed like you could take it.’
And I go, ‘So this isn’t my imagination?’
She goes, ‘Oh, hell, no. You have nerve damage to that entire leg.’ When Egan saw that, then she was like, ‘OK, she’s not a malinger. There’s something going wrong.’
She scheduled a full laminectomy in April of ’96, and I was in the hospital for 10 days. She came in, and she told me, ‘I don’t like to speak ill of other doctors, but there was a mess in there. There was more scar tissue and more debris and more crap. I don’t know what he did in there.’
She cleaned up everything and fused everything and put cages and things like that down in the lumbar section. About three weeks after I got out, she said, ‘Let’s start physical therapy. When you can stand, stand. When you can walk, walk. When you can’t, use your wheelchair.’
Some days I could wake up, swing my legs out of bed, stand up and go, ‘Holy crap, it’s a miracle.’ Take 10 steps and somebody would flip that light switch on my right leg, and it would be like, ‘Ohh-kay. We don’t want to work anymore.’ You never knew.
I look back on it now with the knowledge that I have, and I think it was scar tissue. My scar tissue would build up around a nerve, and then I would do something and that scar tissue would tear, and the nerve would go, ‘Hi! I’m here.’ But nobody was telling me these things. It was all on my own.
WACOAN: How was physical therapy at that point?
Wimberly-Helmick: I remember going, and we had this routine. I’d been there a week, maybe two. One thing they had me do, they would have me raise my legs for hip flexors — and [my right] leg to this day doesn’t like it. So I’m doing my 10 [repetitions], and I’m noticing that day it started here [at this height off the ground], and then it’s here [a little less off the ground], and then it’s getting to the point where I can’t even get off the ground. So I’m lifting it up [with my hand] and helping it.
The [therapist] comes by, and he goes, ‘What are you doing?’
I said, ‘I’m doing my exercises.’
‘Why is your hand underneath your leg?’
‘It won’t do it on its own.’
‘What do you mean? Show me [your right] leg.’ So I show him. He walks away and calls Kathleen Egan. She said to stop physical therapy. That was the last time I had physical therapy.
Nobody knows what to do, and they’re saying, ‘You’re never going to run again, and walking’s going to be interesting and forget any of the sports you’ve ever played before, and this is just going to be a completely different life.’
WACOAN: What was that ‘different life’ like?
Wimberly-Helmick: By this time, DD’s learned to walk by my wheelchair, and I’m starting to damage my shoulders because I’m out hopping curbs, I’m doing everything that I can, you know, to be an athlete in my upper body and everything. I put on weight. I was about 147 [pounds] when I got hurt. At the highest, I got up to 188, and I was dying because my legs were huge.
I lived on steroids. I lived on morphine for three years. I got to the point where I said, ‘This is crazy.’ It’s like the kids were growing up, and I can remember things, but I didn’t know if that was yesterday or two years ago. Everything was going into a bowl, and it wasn’t really helping my pain.
At 39 — three years and 14 days after my injury — my workers’ comp lawyer said, ‘We need to go see about a [psychiatrist]. Something’s not right.’ Depression had hit big time, and I didn’t know what [depression] was. I never had it. So, he arranges for me to see a shrink. Super nice guy. I’m sitting there, and we just talk in his office for like 45 minutes.
And I was like, ‘Pete went to Africa when I was pregnant, and I’m with two kids and working seven days a week with three jobs, and then I got hurt. Pete’s mom died. She was in a coma. She had just passed away when they brought me home from the hospital from the second surgery. My sister had cancer,’ and this and that. I’m just going through all this stuff like, ‘I went to the store.’
He goes, ‘OK. You’ve been with me for about 45 minutes, and you’ve told me more than I can usually get out of people in about three or four sessions. Thank you very much.’
He was the first person who ever told me this. He says, ‘You have to be the strongest person I’ve ever met in my entire life, and that is saying a bit. I’m amazed that you’re still alive and sitting in front of me. You need therapy. You need medication. You definitely have things going on in your brain, probably all due to this injury, and you need to get some help.’
I went, ‘OK, cool. So, this isn’t in my imagination that I don’t feel anything [emotionally]?’ He goes, ‘No.’
So, [later], I am sitting in the shrink’s office taking voluminous amounts of tests, and he says, ‘You have clinical depression. We’ll get you on medication.’ He says, ‘Your serotonin levels are so fouled up right now. They will never go back to normal.’ He said, ‘Had you seen someone within six months to a year of your injury, possibly, your brain chemicals would not have tried to make sense of that by themselves. But since it’s been so long, you’re going to have this the rest of your life.’
I remember sitting there at 39 going, ‘OK, I’m physically disabled, and now you’re telling me I’m mentally disabled. Good day, doc.’
WACOAN: At this point, what did you do career-wise?
Wimberly-Helmick: In ’98, I decided I was going to go back to school and make myself as marketable as possible. I had teaching experience and everything else, but I still didn’t have my Clear Credential [a secondary requirement in California that must be renewed every five years].
I go up to Pasadena City College, and just for grins and giggles, I went in and met the football coach and [asked about] the football theory class.
Of the main sports, football was [one of the] only sports I’d never played, coached, or officiated. I want to make myself as marketable as possible, so if I have some knowledge of what’s going on, it might be a good thing. [The coach] said, ‘Yeah, it’s football theory. It talks all about football and everything else.’ I said, ‘OK, cool. I’m going to sign up for it.’
It’s the football team. It is the two credits of football where they’re doing their chalk talk and learning all about the plays and everything else. I’m the only person in there that’s not on the football team, and I’m obviously the only girl.
So, I’m sitting in the back, and I’m asking questions and I’m taking notes. And all the kids are looking at me.
I’m sitting back there with a guy named Bob Owens who had been the defensive coordinator [and interim head coach] at [Arizona State University]. He says, ‘You want to come out on the football field with us?’ I said, ‘Heck, yes.’
We all go out on the football field, and he says, ‘You want to run through drills?’ So, I ran 75 guys through their drills, and they did everything I said. He goes, ‘Come back tomorrow.’
Within a week, I was an assistant football coach at Pasadena City College. I then found out that they had no academic adviser, and for the last 10 years nobody from their football program had gone anywhere. So, I ingested everything [about the National College Testing Association] and everything in the [junior college] catalog and proceeded to get 12 kids the first year and 20 kids the next year to Division I, Division II schools.
I went to classes with them. I would run guys until they puked at the end of practice if they missed class, if they hadn’t done a paper, and said, ‘You are here academically, first. You are here to play, second.’ If I couldn’t stand on the sidelines during the football game to do the script, [the players] would carry me up to the booth. They were like my kids.
I went into Coach’s office one day and saw my name was written on the board. I said, ‘Coach, why’s my name on your board?’ He said, ‘Because I have more coaches and recruiters asking about you than I do my players.’
I would find out all the background of [every player], and I’d know when they were ready to graduate and when they were ready to go somewhere. I put everyone through the learning disabilities labs — 75% of my kids qualified, but they’d just been pushed through high school because they played ball. They couldn’t read. They couldn’t write.
So, I knew all this stuff. Will they need car accommodations? Here’s what their family’s like. They’re looking for a school on the West Coast.[A recruiter] would get there, and I’d go, ‘What do you need?’ And they’d go, ‘We’re looking at [this player] and looking at [this player]. And I’d either hippity hop over on forearm crutches or wheel over, whatever it was that day, and I’d come back, and I’d have three sheets of paper with their names [and background].
I’d say, ‘Anything else? Let me know.’
Then they’d all stand there and go, ‘Where am I? Who are you?’
I didn’t think anything of it. I thought that was normal.
Anyway, Dave Roberts was the head coach at Baylor, and he was recruiting one of my offensive linemen. Dave said, ‘I want you to come to Baylor and do what you’ve done at PCC because it’s going to be years, probably a decade, before Baylor is an athletic powerhouse, but I want 100% graduation rate for my students.’ That’s unheard of from a Division I coach.
So Pete and I drove out here in April of ’98 and met all the coaches. [They] welcomed me with open arms.[My oldest daughter], Becca, and I got out here in August, and I’m working with Dave and the football players. I was on the field with them just like I was at PCC, but I was also taking care of their academics.
Dave Roberts got released in his second year of a five-year contract. Peter and Sami and DD joined us on Thanksgiving Day, and one week later Dave got released. Here I am in Texas with a Division I football position that is no longer in place. [Kevin] Steele came along [as the new head coach], definitely did not want a female anywhere near his team, so I got put on the video crew as a grad assistant.
One day, around August or September, I was nine units into doctorate program work, and I had this idiot in a little green pickup truck at like 7:30 in the morning come flying in front of me and cut me off and cut off a [semitruck], and we zig and zag. The semi ends up taking most of the right side off of my pickup truck.
I got a concussion, so bad that I didn’t even remember. I knew Pete built houses, and I had Becca. I didn’t even remember I had Sami and DD. I woke up, and I’m looking around, and I go, ‘What do I do?’
‘You’re a doctorate student at Baylor.’
‘Why? What am I doing that for?’ So, I dropped out.
I had surgery in ’99 right after that accident, and [the doctor] put in a bunch more cages and got everything all set.
I fell at the hospital because the nurses weren’t there, and I tried to put myself to bed, and it didn’t work. Pete walked in and goes, ‘I don’t think I should find her on the floor.’
They came running in and went, ‘Oh, no,’ and picked me up, threw me in bed, ruptured a disc in my neck because they didn’t stabilize me. So I’ve had two neck surgeries.
WACOAN: What did you do after you left Baylor?
Wimberly-Helmick: In 2002, I opened up a scrapbooking store, LT’s Scrapbooking Place, right over [off Hewitt Drive]. The reason I got into scrapbooking is because these ladies at the church said, ‘Why don’t you come scrapbook?’ I’ve always been arts-n-crafty, and when you sit at a table, you look like everybody else.
So I decided there are so many little cute, die-cut things and whatnots, and I had saved up some money. I thought, ‘You know what? I can buy these [tools] that people need that are too expensive for them to get and open up a shop and then they can come use them.’
I had it for about four years, but the [Hewitt Drive] Walmart got built, and they were selling scrapbooking stuff for like 50 cents more than I could buy it for. I ended up closing, but it got me up and walking. I had a massage chair that I could go lay in if I needed to. But I said OK, I can do this, and I don’t have to use my [wheelchair] all the time.
WACOAN: Did your health start to improve then?
Wimberly-Helmick: I got pneumonia and got really sick, and I remember coughing or sneezing really hard in bed and felt something go in my back. And I was like, ‘Oh, crap.’ So I went back to [the doctor].
He does an MRI, and what we did find out is, ‘All the connective tissue between your pelvic girdle and your spinal cord is disintegrating, and you have osteoporosis. So this is the beginning of the end, honey. Just get used to that chair,’ and he walks out the door.
I remember getting back in my truck, and going, ‘OK, God. I guess I’m not supposed to walk. I guess I’m not supposed to do all these things that I’m trying to do to get better because I’m actually doing more damage to myself. You better help me stay in this wheelchair.’
For the next month, with the exception of my bedroom and my bathroom, which is totally inaccessible, I lived in my wheelchair.
WACOAN: You’re not in a wheelchair anymore. When were you able to stop using your wheelchair?
Wimberley-Helmick: I was singing in Sweet Adelines [an a cappella singing group] in Temple, and we had a symposium at Furman University in South Carolina. I’m packing up the car thinking, if I put the wheelchair in there, Sami’s going to have like ‘this much room’ in the back seat. I went, screw it, I’ll just take my forearm crutches. So, we went, and I parked as close as I could, and I would use my forearm crutches.[After the symposium], the kids and I packed up, and we drove up [to New York] because they were off of school. [We went] up to the Catskill [Mountains]. I remember getting out of the car, there was a river and bridge, and walking down to the riverbed. I didn’t have my crutches, my cane, didn’t have anything. Every now and then, for little things, I would get out of the car [without assistive aids]. I got back in my car, got home and have never used my crutches or wheelchair since that day.
I guess the 30 days of being religiously staunch, ‘I am not going to do anything I’m not supposed to do,’ created enough scar tissue around things, and I wasn’t doing things that kept tearing through the scar tissue.
It’s my own fault. However, not having a physical therapist to say this is what you should be doing and this is what you shouldn’t be doing — that created other problems. Anytime I would try to do things, it wasn’t anatomically correct. It has just been in the last few years where I’ve realized that I’ve done harm to myself. Now I am much more conscientious about what I’m doing.
The first time I went and officiated football, I’m sprinting down the sidelines wondering why I can’t go as fast as this 16-year-old. Pulled a hamstring. That was four years ago, and it still tweaks and bugs me if I run too long of a stride, so I just keep them to little strides.
WACOAN: How did your injuries affect your family?
Wimberly-Helmick: Basically, I went from being an avid athlete to being in bed wondering what I’m going to do. I was probably prone to depression anyway, but [physical activity] kept it at bay. I’m super ADHD. I’m super Type A. I’m intelligent. I’m always trying to do things, and physical activity is how I released energy and how I released stress and how I stayed in shape, and not being able to do that with three little ones, trying to raise them, the kids took the biggest brunt of that.
Pete and I were married three years when I got hurt. He’s seven years younger than I am. He married me because I was a strong, independent woman, and now all of a sudden, he’s 27 years of age, has three kids to take care of and a wife [to take care of] and he doesn’t know how to do that.
He wasn’t raised like I was in my family. He wasn’t raised around geriatric people and having people that were hurt or injured. You just picked up, and you just did. I don’t fault him, but it was very, very tough for him because it was a learning experience. He was still young himself, and we were raised completely different. He was raised freewill, get to do anything you want to. I was raised with an 11 o’clock curfew until I was 21.
I think the kids suffered academically. They all struggled with anxiety that we didn’t realize at the time. They all had attention deficit [disorder].
All of them got educated. All of them are great kids, and all of them have wonderful guys. But it bothers me that they did not have the childhood they should have had, which was a mother who was there physically and mentally. I look back on it and realize that I did the best I could with what I had. But it was not good enough. It still bugs me.
WACOAN: When did you initially start doing karate?
Wimberly-Helmick: Yesterday was my 40th anniversary. January 13, 1980, is when I walked into Ken Gallagher’s backyard with my now ex-husband. (Ken is now a 10th-degree black belt and the president of [United Fighting Arts Federation] and a grand master with Aaron and Chuck Norris.)
We were both cops. I looked into, for many years, a lot of martial arts. None of them were really something I felt was practical and that I would want to do. I walked into Ken’s backyard and started watching and started doing it and went, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do. This is practical for police work and other things.’
I met Mr. Norris in May or June of 1980.
WACOAN: When did you get back into karate?
Wimberly-Helmick: In 2010, I called my ex-husband, and I said, ‘I’m coming back to karate. I don’t care what it takes.’
He sent me videos of all the forms, which I still had in my brain, and meanwhile I worked out [at a friend’s studio]. Then I had a couple of his students, and then I started getting a few of my own and just slowly built. I went back to UFAF convention in 2010, and I started competing in 2011 and proceeded to get second or third place in almost every category.
I did grappling one year, before I realized I shouldn’t do that anymore, and I took first that year. In 2017, I won the world championship for 50-year-olds, beat the 40-year-old world champion and got the first-ever senior women’s Norris Cup. The next year, I had some problems with my midback and found out I have arthritis in my midback, so I didn’t compete. Then went back last year in 2019 and competed and got world champion for 60-year-olds, beat the 40-year-old champion and got the senior women’s Norris Cup again.
Chuck came out here because I hadn’t gotten a picture with him in 2017. He and his wife show up at my front door to take a picture, and I was freaking out. I told him about my new [location for Infinitus Martial Arts] being built, and he said, ‘I will be here for the grand opening.’
They’d already given me in 2014 the Most Inspirational Award for coming back. By that time, I had tested for my [second-degree black belt], I tested for my third the next year, and then I tested for my fourth two years ago. I’m eligible for fifth whenever Mr. Norris decides. That’s a black jacket, and that’s where you’ve kind of made it. I can test my own firsts for black belts at that point.
WACOAN: You’ve had to face and overcome a lot of physical, mental and emotional hardships in your life. What do you think has made it possible for you to be able to do that?
Wimberly-Helmick: I was raised by parents in the ’60s. My mother worked, and I came from a generation where that was unheard of. My grandmothers both had worked. I came from generations of women who worked and were strong.
I grew up with parents that always worked.
From the time I was 8, my grandmother lived in the house, so we always had an adult in the house. It was a very strict household. I called my dad ‘Sir.’ My kids call him ‘Grandsir.’
I did sports to obviously get away from the strictness of the household, and I was very good at it.
We all had to do music. We all sang, we sang trios all over Southern California, and I started harmonizing, my parents said, when I was about 3 years old. I learned at a very early age that you do what needs to be done. Period.
So, when this hit, I’m an athlete. It’s what I am. I was a coach, I was an official, I was a player, I was an athletic trainer. Everything I’ve ever done in my life has involved being physically able. In order to do that again, in order to make my life whole and fulfilled, I have to do that again. And if I can’t, I’ve got a hard road figuring out what it is I am going to do.
When you have a life where you’re good at what you do and you try really hard to be good at what you do because you just want to be the best, then you start to believe, even though you have absolutely no self-esteem, you believe that you have the ability to get through this.
Basically, you do it because there is no alternative. The alternative is sitting on the couch feeling sorry for yourself, eating bonbons and weighing 300 pounds. I can’t. I’ve never been that person.
WACOAN: How did you feel when you received the Most Inspirational Award in 2014 from Chuck Norris?
Wimberley-Helmick: This is so hokey. I would lay in bed, and I would watch ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’ because I could see Chuck. And in my ear, Chuck would be standing on one side of my bed, Ken would be standing on the other side of my bed, and they would be talking to me. ‘So, you didn’t get to walk today. How about we try tomorrow.’ Or, ‘You walked 10 feet today, let’s see if we can do 10 feet again tomorrow.’ I would lay in bed and do my hand [positions], so when it got to the blocks and the strikes, I had been doing them in bed flat on my back for so long.
In my brain, I would say to myself, ‘I will be back with you one day, Mr. Norris. I will. I will come back. I will come back,’ and I could hear them saying, ‘We know. We know you will.’ So, Chuck was there with me every step of the way.
Where it hit me was the first time I won the [Norris Cup] trophy. The first year they offered it, and I was fighting a girl that I knew in Las Vegas, and I beat her six to one.
I have ugly pictures, ugly pictures of me bawling, having won this trophy, and Aaron laughing at me. Chuck wasn’t there. This is his brother, Aaron. This is one of my favorite pictures.
It was 2017 so it would have been 23 years since my injury, and everything for 23 years came flooding back in those next five to 10 minutes. I bawled my face off to think that I had not only returned to this organization, not only returned to being a black belt and running a school and getting belts and advancing in rank and competing, but to actually win the world championship and get a patch that year and then turn around and get a trophy, especially the first year that Chuck’s ever had the senior women’s trophy.
I don’t think anybody there really got it. They had an idea, but I don’t think any of them really got it. I remember laying there in that bed with legs that didn’t work, just fantasizing about one day being back with them.
With everything I had learned and with everything I wanted to be, this was the one thing I wanted to return to. Playing softball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, any of those are just a sport. But this was an organization, and I firmly believe that because of my training, it is what made me say, ‘OK, I can’t do this today, but I can do it tomorrow.’
The way everything’s happened, it’s happened, and I’m glad it has. I am much more content, much stronger, much happier and a much more balanced human being now than I ever was before.
Are there things that I still don’t like about myself? Yes. Are there things that I still can’t do? Yes. Do I still have trouble motivating myself to do things for myself? Yes. And I always will. But I’m the only one that can change it.