Courtney Bernard ‘20 of the Daemen College women’s volleyball team has been named a recipient of the John Smillie, Jr. Award given annually to East Coast Conference student-athletes who have overcome personal or physical challenges and hardships to pursue their intercollegiate athletic careers.
The award, named for an athletic trainer who served at the New York Institute of Technology for 14 years before his passing in 2008, was recently presented in a virtual manner in lieu of the ECC’s annual awards dinner. Bernard is one of three recipients, joining Molloy College women’s volleyball player Carly Banks and Mercy College women’s lacrosse player Talia Stagnitta.
Bernard, a 6-foot right side hitter/middle blocker, completed her five-year college career last fall. She battled numerous physical ailments along the way, including a years-long odyssey of undiagnosed pain in her dominant right hand. What started as a loss of sensation progressed to tremoring and caused her to miss the 2017 season.
Determined to make her way back to the court in 2018, Bernard re-taught herself how to play the game left-handed, reversing her entire skill set. She even trained as a setter to increase her odds of seeing the court and contributing to the team. Bernard appeared in 31 of the team’s 32 matches that season, totaling 176 kills, including the winning point of the ECC Championship that sent Daemen to the NCAA tournament for the second time in her career.
Ultimately a diagnosis of pectoralis minor syndrome, a condition that causes pain, numbness, and tingling in the hand and arm, came prior to Bernard’s redshirt senior season, nearly 1,100 days after she first showed symptoms. To continue competing and to complete her college volleyball career, she elected to postpone the surgery necessary to correct her condition, opting instead for multiple rounds of Botox injections, which served to effectively paralyze her pectoralis minor muscle.
The surgery to correct Bernard’s pectoralis minor syndrome was completed in February, after which she found out she had also played the final two seasons of her career with torn hip labrum.
“I’m so proud of Courtney for persevering over the course of her career,” said Daemen head coach Stephanie Albano. “Her path was very challenging and to accomplish what she did without ever being 100 percent physically is nothing short of amazing. She is so deserving of this award, and I’ll be forever grateful to have had the opportunity to coach her.”
The Smillie Award marks the second major award that Bernard received this spring. Last month she was named the recipient of the C.L.A.W. Award given annually to the Daemen senior student-athlete who best exemplifies character, leadership, work ethic, and academic achievement.
It is also the second time Bernard has been heralded for her ability to overcome the physical challenges she has faced. She was named the first-ever recipient of the Daemen Sports Medicine P.R.I.D.E. Award in 2018, recognizing her perseverance, resilience, integrity, determination, and expectations of excellence throughout a dedicated approach to injury rehabilitation.
Bernard graduated in the Class of 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences and is currently working as a home health care worker for an autistic child. She is planning to pursue additional schooling to become a licensed nurse.