Seniors struggling over [post-graduation plans] don’t have to know exactly what they want from life as soon as they leave East Hill. They can look to field hockey standout goalie Yanaka Bernal ’91 for inspiration in this regard. The Regional All-American took an unusual, indirect path to her current position as an elementary school teacher and inductee into the Cornell Athletic Hall of Fame.
As a goalie for the Red, Bernal was unstoppable. Co-captain for her last season, Bernal set the records for saves in a game (30 in 1990), in a season (222 in 1990), and over her career (597), in addition to establishing the record for career shutouts with a total of 12. In addition to being a Regional All-American her senior year, she was a two-time All-Ivy goaltender, having been awarded second team honors in 1988 and first team honors in 1990.
Bernal was so good, in fact, that she was invited to play for the U.S. Elite field hockey team. After her last season as a player for the Red ended, she made the decision to drop out Ithaca before winter break began to attend camps and practices, eventually traveling the world with the team.
The Pan American Games in Havana, Cuba was a major international event for Bernal and her team. In August of 1991, the U.S. team won the bronze medal against teams from all over the Western Hemisphere.
The experience was an “eye-opener” for Bernal. She is half-Bolivian, and knowing Spanish allowed her to interact with the warm, welcoming Cuban people more than her teammates could. Bernal got the chance to get a first-hand look at Castro’s Cuba.
“Just going down the street, you could see all these great aspirations to make the society better, and if you got closer, you saw [the buildings were] dilapidated and poorly made,” she said.
For the most part, however, there was no time for anything but field hockey. The team also traveled to Australia and New Zealand, in addition to Sheffield, England for the World University Games in July of 1991.
“[In England] I saw the astro-turf, I saw the hotel. It wasn’t as glamorous as you’d think it would be,” she said. “My whole being was focused on making that team, and when I finally did…it wasn’t the positive experience I envisioned it to be.”
She eventually decided to give up her spot on the team and leave professional field hockey forever.
“Up to that point in time, I’d always been ‘Yanaka the hockey player,’” she said.
It took three or four years for Bernal to redefine herself. In the meantime, she returned to Cornell to complete her degree. During the 1992-1993 seasons, she was also an assistant coach for the field hockey and lacrosse teams.
“I’d coached since I was a senior in high school. [Coaching] wasn’t new, but it was kind of odd coaching your teammates,” Bernal said.
She worked with the goalies in particular, including her successor in the net Amy Wright ’93. Wright broke Bernal’s record for season saves in 1991 and eventually broke Bernal’s record for career saves, records which she holds to this day.
“Being part of a team for me was a lifesaver. My teammates were there to struggle through courses with … I don’t think Cornell would have been as kind an environment without the team around me,” Bernal said.
One of the high points of her field hockey career at Cornell was not a personal accomplishment, but a team victory. In the regular season game against Brown her senior year, Bernal vividly remembers watching from the goal as her teammates scored on a “beautifully executed” corner play designed by former head coach Shelby Bowman.
“It was such a sweet victory to hear the ball go into the cage behind [the Brown goalie] in sudden death overtime. I just jumped into the air and ran down the field,” Bernal said.
Bernal filled her days at Cornell with activity. On a typical day, she might wake up, run four or five miles, play hockey and work out — nonstop athletic endeavors throughout the day with meals and classes scattered in.
“There was a time nothing could touch me,” she said. “[I was] taking full advantage of my youth.”
She recalls college life as a time for exploration, academically as well as athletically. Bernal herself followed an independent curriculum. She was originally interested in pursuing toy design. One of the best aspects of Cornell was having the opportunity to take such a wide variety of classes, according to Bernal.
“Now, as a teacher, I have this wealth of knowledge I can just pull out of the air,” she said.
When Bernal left Ithaca to earn a Master’s in elementary education at the University of Pennsylvania in preparation for a teaching career, she didn’t leave field hockey behind. She served as an assistant coach on UPenn’s field hockey team while in Philadelphia.
After working at an elementary school for a time, Bernal’s career shifted focus when she began work at Amspec Chemical Corporation, her family’s company. She held a variety of jobs there, ranging from marketing manager to designer of the company’s original website.
“[My parents] asked me to be part of the family business, and I did that for six years,” Bernal said. “Then I decided that being in the family business was not what I wanted to do, and I went back to teaching.”
She has worked at Linden Hill Elementary in Wilmington, Delaware ever since, first as a fifth grade teacher and now teaching computers. Bernal doesn’t consider herself to be a “conventional teacher.”
“[An elementary school] is a really warm, friendly environment,” she said. “My administrators are really supportive of pretty much anything I throw out there.”
With a firm philosophy in mind that children “learn by doing,” Bernal plans lessons that specifically involve teamwork and cooperation. She also extends these ideas to cover more extracurricular lessons. For example, she spearheaded a new recycling program and an innovative podcast program at Linden Hill.
“If I see something that I think will benefit the school and I can do it with a small group of students, [my administrator] gives me free rein to get it done,” Bernal said.
Bernal just started working on her doctorate at the University of Delaware. She is especially interested in the intersection between technology and classroom education. Yet sometimes people question her as to why a Cornell graduate would take on the modest, low-profile profession of an elementary school teacher.
“I spent a great deal of energy lamenting the fact that all I was a teacher, but I realized that…there’s nothing more important to the future of our country than to make sure that the next generation of leaders, employers and decision-makers is top-notch,” Bernal said.
The occasion of tomorrow’s ceremony will be the first time Bernal has visited Cornell since 2001, when she attended the graduation of her brother Stephen Bernal ’01. Bernal lives in Delaware with her partner Lori Horner and their two children. They have been together for eleven years.
“If New Jersey legislates in an appropriate manner, we may choose to [legally marry and share last names],” she said. “It would be like going over the bridge to get hitched.”
For now, Bernal is enjoying her pending induction into the Hall of Fame. She was stunned to hear that she would be recognized.
“I hadn’t really thought about it, and it was a huge honor,” she said.
Bernal still coaches field hockey on the side. Putting her special skills as a goalie to use, Bernal gives young offensive players practice shooting around a live target.
“I’ll pad up and a forward will shoot on me. I basically get paid to have people shoot blunt objects at me,” she said with a laugh.
In fact, Bernal only recently took up the game again herself. When she turned 37, she felt the urge to return to the more active lifestyle of her youth. Now, she plays hockey a couple of times a week. Bernal’s induction into the Hall of Fame might be occurring after she returned to field hockey just by coincidence, but she sees some symmetry in the timing.
“Getting into the Hall of Fame was a sort of cosmic reconciliation between field hockey and me,” she said. “We could be happy with each other again.”