As a 22-year-old living with autism, Daniel “Danny” Steele shocked his parents when he told them he wanted to learn golf, notoriously one of the world’s most difficult sports.
Each swing of the club Daniel “Danny” Steele takes is a tale of unimaginable success.
From the outside, the mechanics of a solid golf swing look easy. But looks are deceiving: It requires finely tuned motor skills, balance and hand-eye coordination, among other things. It’s a complex equation most never solve.
And perhaps golf’s endless pursuit of mastery is what captivated 22-year-old Steele, who has autism. For the past six months, Steele has been learning the sport, impressing one of his biggest fans — his father, Jim Steele.
“This is somebody who is 22, who doesn’t tie his own shoes, yet here we are trying to learn golf — one of the most challenging sports to learn with regard to motor skills, and you have to keep 49 things in your head — and he’s persistent and he hasn’t given up,” Jim Steele said.
A LIFE OF CHALLENGES
When Danny Steele was 2 years old, Jim Steele and his wife, Nadja Rivera, knew something was wrong.
Their child began regressing in a few different ways. Danny Steele stopped speaking and reverted back to crawling. They took him to a specialist in San Diego — where they lived at the time — and the doctor called them back to her office to deliver the diagnosis: Their son had autism.
In that moment, neither knew much about autism or what it entailed, but they knew the only steps to take were to accept the situation and help their son in whatever way necessary.
“(We) had to play it by ear and then follow the directions of the psychologists, and we went to counseling and just tried to be as proactive as we could,” Nadja Rivera said.
A young Danny Steele began learning how to converse through sign language. He attended a specialty school before he and the family moved to Windermere, when he turned 6. In Central Florida, he participated in a special program at Thornebrooke Elementary School, got involved with Autism Society of Orlando and tried horseback riding therapy, which helped him with tantrums that were triggered by the simplest things — such as not getting a McDonald’s cheeseburger and fries every single day.
With the struggles came victories. Many of those would be deemed insignificant by many, but for Danny Steele, they were monumental.
Jim Steele recalled one day when Danny Steele, then 7 years old, managed to use the restroom successfully by himself. He came out excited, and in that moment, both Jim Steele and Nadja Rivera broke down in tears. Another time Nadja Rivera remembers fondly was when Danny Steele — a Star Wars fanatic — conquered his inability to handle the lights and sounds of movie theaters. Now, her son can’t get enough of the silver screen.
Danny Steele continued to progress. He made his way through the challenge-fueled times of middle and high school, before graduating magna cum laude in 2017 from Olympia High. Most recently, he graduated from the Orange County Public Schools Transition program for challenged young adults.
LEARNING THE GAME
Six months ago, Danny Steele asked his parents for something that threw them for a loop — he wanted to play golf.
“I wanted to learn for fun,” Danny Steele said.
Although Danny Steele had always liked sports mascots and logos, he had never talked about playing a sport. He had, however, spent a lot of time with his dad watching golf on TV. But Jim Steele knew he couldn’t coach him, so he got in touch with Orange County National. Jim Steele connected with Tony Keeton — a teaching professional — who set up Danny Steele with a once-a-week practice. It was an ideal scenario, because Keeton understood how to work with Danny Steele with ease — Keeton himself has a 13-year-old daughter who has autism.
“Tony was pretty good, and he made it fun, and he did it bit by bit,” Jim Steele said. “This guy knows the golf swing in and out, and he does all of his lessons by video, so we’re there and he sends instructional videos right from his iPad and right into my text messages.”
Throughout the six months of lessons, the biggest focus has been on getting his swing working. So far, the growth in Danny Steele’s game has been incredible, Jim Steele said. Together,, they have played a half-dozen rounds of golf.
“I get to spend five hours with him playing,” Jim Steele said. “And I never thought even in my wildest dreams that he would be my golfing buddy — I mean, that’s pretty cool.”
As Danny Steele progresses, he has some big goals for the future. He plans on participating in golf at the 2022 Special Olympics and maybe go further in the sport.
“I want to be a pro,” Danny Steele said.
“We’re just so blessed that he found something that came from him … and the fact that he has a goal, it makes it even better,” Nadja Rivera said. “I don’t care if he makes it to pro, but the fact that he has that in his mind? That’s just great.”