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UMC freshmen Golliher, Wheeler help each other navigate the road back from torn ACLs

Jacob Shames
Crookston Times
Eden Golliher playing for her high school, West Iron County H.S. in Michigan. Golliher is one of three freshmen on the Minnesota Crookston women's basketball team this season.

The pain, Haylee Wheeler would never wish upon any athlete. But in that moment, she was fortunate enough to know another who had felt it.

This January, Wheeler was preparing to have surgery on her torn right ACL. Inasmuch as ACL injuries can come at a good time, this wasn't the worst timing. She had been able to play half her senior season, including her school's rivalry game. Her basketball future was secure, too, as she had committed to Minnesota Crookston in June 2019.

And on that note, she had one of her future college teammates to lean on.

Wheeler texted fellow signee Eden Golliher, who had undergone the same surgery two months prior. The two had gotten in touch in September 2019, after Golliher committed to UMC, and started building a relationship through social media.

Wheeler wanted to know what to expect when she went under the knife, which put Golliher in a tough spot. Golliher's own ordeal hadn't gone so well. Her pain medications made her nauseous, so she stopped taking them. But the pain in her left knee was just as bad, so much so that she was sick every day for about a month post-surgery.

"I didn't wanna tell her I had a bad experience," Golliher laughed. "So I was like, 'Oh, it's good, you'll be good!' ... That's how we kind of bonded."

But in describing the actual recovery process, Golliher could afford to be slightly more honest. Both her and Wheeler were aware it would be no cakewalk; that it would be extremely demanding, both mentally and physically. As the days, weeks, months passed, they remained in each other's ears, telling them to keep pushing.

By the time the Golden Eagles began practicing this November, Golliher was in good enough shape to jump into 5-on-5 play. Wheeler hopes to be cleared later this month. In just a few weeks, they could both make their collegiate debuts.

While Golliher and Wheeler took different roads back from suffering one of the most devastating injuries an athlete can endure, their roads met at the same destination. And in successfully navigating them, they have each other to thank.

***

The summer before Wheeler's sophomore year of high school, her family moved into a new house. Not quite used to the bathroom setup, she tried to get into the bathtub but slipped and hurt her right knee instead. 

"It's kind of funny telling people that story, because that's the last thing people think," she says now.

Haylee Wheeler signed her National Letter of Intent to play basketball at Minnesota Crookston last November. Wheeler is from Lakeville, and played at Lakeville South H.S.

Not everything was so hilarious then. Wheeler felt a pop, then a sudden rush of sickness — she had never experienced any pain like it. She knew something was wrong, but it took five doctors to diagnose her. Wheeler had partially torn her ACL, but the troublesome part was that there was really nothing the doctors could do about it in the short term.

A month of physical therapy got Wheeler back on her feet, but there was no easy permanent fix. She had a choice: get surgery to repair it fully, or keep going on it as long as possible.

"They only saw a sliver of it torn, so it wasn't all the way torn," Wheeler said. "... That was definitely a hard situation for me to be put in. It was pretty much all my decision. I just figured I'm a hard worker, and I really was like, I'm gonna grind this out."

The 6-foot-2 Wheeler grew into a strong interior presence at Lakeville South H.S., averaging 9.2 points and 6.3 rebounds as a junior and earning All-South Suburban Conference honors. She'd rehab and take a game off here and there if she tweaked her knee, but overall, everything was going swimmingly.

The same could be said for Golliher. A versatile, 6-foot forward, she was named All-Conference her sophomore and junior years at West Iron County H.S. in Michigan, and was named to the Upper Peninsula Dream Team after a junior season in which she averaged 15.2 points and 8.9 rebounds and led her team to a district championship. 

Golliher doesn't know exactly when everything changed. She thinks it might have been July 6 the summer before her senior year, playing in an AAU game for Wisconsin Flight Rise in Appleton, Wisc., as that was the only time that summer she fell hard on her left knee. Either way, it went undiagnosed until a check-up the eve of her senior season.

This part, Golliher remembers clearly. It was 3 p.m. the day of the first practice when she received the fateful call. Her mother ran down to school to inform her that she couldn't play.

Golliher went to the bathroom and cried and cried. In the ensuing days, she didn't even want to go to school, let alone show up at practice and have no choice but to watch.

"But then I said, if this happened to someone else on my team, they would come to practice," Golliher said. "Just because I'm not playing doesn't mean I can't go to practice. So I just pushed through and I said, I gotta just be there for the team."

It helped that Golliher had already made her college choice. If she hadn't been committed, she told her parents at the time, she would have tried to play. But with a college career awaiting, she wanted to be ready from the get-go — plus, at this point, she just wanted to get the surgery over with.

By contrast, Wheeler decided to play her final year of high school, even though she was committed as well. It wasn't an easy choice. She saw her senior season as "heads or tails, hit-or-miss": the only way to tell if her ACL would keep holding up was by playing. But then again, she fancied herself a grinder.

Early in the season, Wheeler was playing defense when she twisted her knee and felt a small pop. She knew she had torn it a little bit more. She didn't feel the need to go to the doctor, as this had happened before. She simply took a couple days off, making sure to ice her knee and keep it elevated, and wore a leg brace in every subsequent game. But she was past the point of no return.

"It's gonna give out on me any time now," she told her father. "I might as well keep playing until it does."

On Jan. 10, in a game at Prior Lake, Wheeler drove to the basket and crashed down on her right leg. Her injured ligament finally ruptured completely. Her dad ran towards her, as did her coaches, and she told them what she knew immediately: her high school career was over.

***

At first, Golliher and Wheeler's relationship was like any other between soon-to-be college teammates and roommates.

They followed each other on Instagram, got each other's Snapchats. They talked about basketball, how they wanted to decorate their room, about their different upbringings: While Wheeler is from the Twin Cities metro, where there's a thriving amateur basketball community, Golliher, from a town of 3,000, had to drive three hours south just to play AAU. Wheeler's graduating class was bigger than Golliher's entire high school.

It was their torn ACLs, though, that sealed their connection.

Golliher and Wheeler were never really in the same spot of their respective recoveries at the same time. Their back-and-forth consisted mostly of reminders and words of advice to each other. Do your physical therapy. Stay positive. This won't last forever. Eventually, it will all be worth it.

"I saw how hard (Golliher) was working and was like, I wanna work that hard too," Wheeler said. "Seeing her dedication towards getting her knee stronger, everything like that really helped me and encouraged me to stay on the right path and keep my head high.

"We really held each other accountable of making sure that we're getting our stuff done, making sure we're good mentally, physically and all of that stuff. Just making sure we're keeping our bodies right, no matter the hardships that come across."

Golliher had been put on a 32-week timetable to full health after her surgery, and indeed, started working towards achieving it almost immediately. She went to physical therapy six days a week, logging her progress in a journal. She was in a wheelchair for a couple months — "we have little, little kids at my school, and with my luck I would have gotten knocked down" — before moving to crutches. Next, walking on her own. By March, she was able to shoot baskets by herself.

"It was really nice to have my physical therapist and my family and friends to (remind me), the quicker you get this recovery done, the quicker you get back," Golliher said. "That's all I kept saying to myself."

Wheeler's rehab went smoothly for the first two months, before the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way. With everything shut down, Wheeler's progress stalled, as she didn't have all of the right equipment at home and wasn't able to get crucial one-on-one help.

"It was just a really hard time to rely on myself," she said.

While Wheeler benefited from a strength and conditioning program over the summer, it wasn't until she got to campus that she got the final piece necessary for her recovery. With head athletic trainer Steven Krouse, Wheeler realized she wasn't quite on the right path. Krouse and Wheeler decided to reset, and Wheeler rededicated herself towards getting her strength and explosiveness back.

"I didn't get to have a one-on-one experience with a personal trainer or physical therapist," Wheeler said. "It was really nice for me and him to just really focus on what I needed to focus on, and him telling me the things I needed to do and the timetables that I need as well."

Golliher says she's finally getting the hang of being back in action. She's close, but not quite 100 percent physically: while it might have taken her a couple days to get back in shape at the beginning of the season in high school, it took her closer to a couple weeks this fall. 

The real battle for her, though, is the mental one. She's still trying to get to a point where she can go up for a rebound or come down from a jumper without thinking about her ACL. Only when she wins that battle will she be able to play free and to the best of her ability.

"When I came back I was like, 'Oh, basketball's kind of rough, and I don't know if I can come back,' " Golliher admitted. "But I'm just gonna try to be positive. ... Now that my knee's new, my doctor says you just can't worry about if it's gonna hurt or tear again,"You just gotta go. That's the big thing that I've been trying to get through. I would just tell myself, 'you're fine, your doctor cleared you, he wouldn't clear you if you weren't.' "

This fall, Wheeler's been getting back in the groove from a skills and agility standpoint: shooting, dribbling, cutting, jumping. She hasn't been cleared for full contact just yet, but the timetable she's on with Krouse has gone without a hitch — and that timetable has her returning when the Golden Eagles come back from winter break.

"No matter what happens, as long as I'm there to support my teammates and stuff like that, that's the biggest thing for me," she said. "It's just about being there for my teammates and cheering them on."

Golliher thinks she'll be a bit anxious when she gets into a college game for the first time. After all, she didn't get any of her senior season — it's been a year and a half since she's played competitively. 

"But as I start to go, I think it will get better," she said. "When we were scrimmaging, I was nervous in the beginning, but as I started playing I was like, 'Okay, this feels back to normal.' "

Watching her teammates practice, Wheeler's been thinking about getting back on the court herself. She feels blessed and excited, but most of all, can't wait to join them.

"The mental process of coming back from an ACL tear is so hard," she said. "I think those first couple steps of getting in that game, I'll just be super overwhelmed with happiness."

How fitting would it be if she and Golliher were to take those first couple steps together?

The Times welcomes your feedback. You can send any comments or questions to our office at (218) 281-2730 or sports editor Jacob Shames at jshames@crookstontimes.com.

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