Families and friends of New Zealand wheelchair basketball player Teremoana Tuakana, who died this week, remember him as a hero who wouldn’t give up.
The 34-year-old died just hours after returning from Thailand, where his team played in a tri-nations tournament.
According to a coroner in New Zealand, the Mitiaro-born man died from an infection.
Tuakana’s sudden death left his partner of eight years, Kalina Harry, in shock. Harry said Tuakana had returned after a week away playing with the Roller Blacks and was keen to rest.
However, he quickly deteriorated, was suffering a fever and then hospitalised before dying in his hospital bed on Sunday. The couple are parents to son Kevin, 6, and daughter, Tevina, 3.
“I didn’t realise this infection was really bad. I thought he would just get checked and go home, but it was a different story,” Kalina said.
He had been in good health prior to leaving and believed he must have contracted the virus in Thailand, as she had been contacted by a teammate some days earlier.
Tuakana’s aunty Nga Manea said they were shocked when they heard the news about his untimely death.
Family gathered last night at Mitiaro Hostel in Rarotonga to celebrate his life.
“He was born and raised in Mitiaro and left the island after he had a massive motorbike accident in 2004. He was flown to Rarotonga and then to Auckland for rehabilitation and further treatment. He didn’t return to the country,” Manea said.
“He has been on a wheelchair for 16 years but that hasn’t stopped him from achieving things in life. He had a degree in IT, had a good job, a family with two children, a house and a car.
“He was a warrior, a real hero who was never ashamed of being on a wheelchair. He was a dependable person who always thrived to better his and his loved ones lives. He never saw his disability as an obstacle. He has left behind a lifelong teaching especially for all of his cousins.”
Tuakana’s cousin and pastor of the Pacific Gospel Mission church he attended, Mata Makara, said everyone was still struggling to believe his death was real.
“People are still saying ‘we’re shocked’, even today, it still hasn't sunken in,” he said.
“We didn't believe it at first, we thought ‘we want to see him’ before we could believe it. It’s just unthinkable that it’s happened.”
As well as a loyal member of the church, Tuakana played in its band; attending every Sunday morning practice, rain, hail or shine, by catching a train and then bus through Auckland.
Tuakana had always been sporty; representing Cook Islands in an U16 soccer team which toured New Zealand prior to his accident.
Family initially thought he was playing wheelchair basketball for fun, but then he began to excel before being selected for New Zealand two years ago.
He had moved between New Zealand and Australia several times before finally settling down eight years ago and having his two children.
Tuakana will be laid to rest on Sunday.
Manea said she would be leaving for Auckland later this week to pay her final respect to their fallen hero.
- Rashneel Kumar/New Zealand Herald