Daniel Bernard: Playing with a smile

Daniel Bernard and mum Jacqueline love sport, from shooting hoops to scoring goals and all the joy in between.

Come daylight or dusk, you will most probably find Daniel Bernard shooting at his basketball hoop.

He never gets tired of practising his three-pointers, no-look throws, and sinking buzzer-beaters from the opposite end of his very own Madison Square Garden.

But Daniel graced much bigger stages than his home in Garston, Hertfordshire, before COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were enforced, winning gold at the Special Olympics GB National Games in Sheffield in 2017 and the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi as part of Great Britain’s 26-24 victory over USA two years later.

Daniel’s family remained in England and had to rely on televised games and Twitter updates to keep an eye on his progress at the World Games, before being reunited at Heathrow as part of a magical hero’s welcome for all Special Olympic athletes.

“Abu Dhabi was really good because I got to make new friends and meet athletes from other countries, see what their experiences were like and how they played,” said Daniel, who also plays for Special Olympics St Albans. “I also liked scoring my three-pointer against Israel.

“At times, [the final] was really hard because we had to push ourselves and keep going when we were losing. We picked ourselves up and said, ‘look, we can do this’.

“Then we played at a fast pace and won the gold medal, which surprised me as I didn’t know we were going to win it.

“I felt really proud, like an FA Cup winner.”

After all, it was the football community that helped Daniel get there in the first place. As Arsenal season ticket holders together for 13 years, he and his mum Jacqueline contacted the club to help fundraise for the costs of competing in an Olympics.

Arsenal provided a signed photo, which Daniel auctioned, and they not only helped him fulfil his Abu Dhabi ambitions but also the dream of any Gunners supporter.

“The Arsenal Foundation invited him for a tour and he went on the pitch,” said Jacqueline. “They also announced him winning in the programme once the gold medal had been achieved and sent a lovely letter to him.

“I didn’t expect anything from them, but it was nice to get the support, and people were messaging us saying they had just seen Daniel in the programme.

“The club has been great. He has a season ticket which they agreed not to move anywhere else because he needs the familiarity of where he is.

“They have a special team put aside and I know it’s always the same person I can always ask to speak to, and they have been in contact with Daniel during lockdown to see how he is doing, so those are good things.

“You mention something and he’ll tell you all the goals from all the Arsenal matches gone by a long time ago; it’s quite amazing.”

Daniel’s passion for football is not just genetic, stemming from being introduced to the game as soon as he could walk.

He has also tried tennis, golf, and swimming, but netball was where he discovered his eye for shooting hoops, which was spotted by his college tutor Simon Jackson-Turner who also coached the Special Olympics GB basketball team and helped Daniel on his journey.

“It doesn’t matter if you have autism or anything else, sport is there and it’s something that can make your life so much better.”

Jacqueline Bernard

But in all his sporting experiences, as an athlete or a fan, the 26-year-old who celebrates his birthday tomorrow has found joy from those around him and inspiration from just being himself.

“Autism helps you push yourself harder and work on things that you find difficult,” he said. “The more you work on them, the better you get.

“I would recommend sport to other people as it can help them learn to not give up, and if they are struggling, I can always help and encourage them.

“It’s important to make friends. You get to help them, communicate with them, make them feel happy in themselves and have fun.

“I’m really proud to also be an Arsenal season ticket holder because I like seeing how they play, the atmosphere, the songs, and sitting with the same people in the ground who are really friendly and like saying hello.

“I want to inspire people so they can do interesting things.”

In honour of his achievements, Daniel was presented with the BBC Three Counties People Award for Sport, as well as the Most Inspirational Young Person Award at the Kids Count Inspiration Awards in 2019 after being nominated by former Watford MP Richard Harrington.

The Bernards were invited to Westminster and received a tour of the House of Commons – a brilliant day for the family scrapbook, but a mere bonus when compared to what Jacqueline sees as Daniel’s true prize.

“The social side of the sport has been immense because friendships have been tricky for Daniel over the years,” she explained.

“With things not coming easy, it means that when something isn’t straightforward in a game or on the court, he is very determined to keep trying and doesn’t give up. Coming back from a losing position or pushing himself that bit harder is something that has been reflected during his life.

“We have three children and all of them are inspirational in their own way, but for Daniel, things have been tough at times and he has succeeded so brilliantly, and we are so proud of him.

“Sport has been the biggest thing as it’s changed his life. Particularly in lockdown, without sport and without him going out into the garden and playing basketball or going for a walk, it would be hard.

“It has given him a sense of wellbeing, purpose, something to strive for, and so much enjoyment. I am hugely proud that he won the medal, but even if he didn’t, just to watch his face when he is out there taking part and playing with his friends has just been brilliant.

“These are friendships built on a shared understanding of sports and wanting to achieve together. It doesn’t matter if you have autism or anything else, sport is there and it’s something that can make your life so much better.

“We should be celebrating everyone who takes part in sport, and just enjoying it.”

© 2021 Sport and Autism (UK) CIC
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