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Young polo club challenges sport's elite stereotypes

 

The Brown Polo team prepares for practice more elaborately than most sports teams. Before players can begin practice, they must ready horses by wrapping their shins, cleaning out their horseshoes and braiding their tails so that mallets won't accidentally get caught in them. Then, as the wind blows in from the bay and their shadows lengthen in the late afternoon sun, they head out to the Newport Polo Club practice fields to get to work.  

The Brown Polo Club is at once a rigorous team and a group looking to push the boundaries of how its sport is perceived. Originally a club with only three members, its membership has now grown to a dozen people between the men's and women's teams, with a core varsity group of seven people. The club is seeking more students to join, both to ensure it does not die out and to prove that polo is not just a sport for the "very wealthy," said Margot Penney '14, an alternate to the women's team and its newest member. 

The club also hopes more students will discover the magic of the sport. Simply put, "polo's an addiction," said Coach Dan Keating. 

 

Establishing a presence

The club was founded in 2011, when Brown Polo became a member of the United States Polo Association and became recognized as a Category III organization by the Undergraduate Council of Students, allowing it to submit a budget to the Undergraduate Finance Board each semester for approval, said President of Brown Polo Caroline Hughes '12. 

Each member of the team has his or her own reasons for joining. For Reyad Williams '11.5, who grew up on a horse farm in North Carolina, polo was a way for him to ride horses at Brown, as the equestrian team does not accept male members. When Williams dismounted after his first polo lesson, "you could see him shaking with excitement," Keating said. Williams has been hooked ever since.

Sam Tianlin Yang '14, who is currently training to eventually compete as a member of the men's team, and Diego Ramos Rosas '12 share Williams' love for the sport. Both rode horses as children growing up in Peru and China, respectively, and encountered representatives from Brown Polo at the Student Activities Fair. Han Sheng Chia '14 said he started riding last year largely out of curiosity but has since become comfortable enough to compete in intercollegiate matches.

 

What more could you want?

As the team did warm-up drills, such as penalty shots and dribbling exercises, Keating's wife Agnes explained the origins of the sport and the basic rules. Polo in its modern form was first invented by Maharajas in India as a way of training cavalry soldiers and was adopted by British troops stationed there in the 19th century. After they brought the sport back to England, its popularity spread, and it is now played in more than 80 countries, she said.

There are two main varieties of polo — field polo and arena polo. Field polo is the variety most people think of when the sport is mentioned, played on wide grass fields in warm weather. Arena polo, the variety which Brown Polo participates in, is played in large corrals on a mixture of dirt and sand, and can be played in less favorable conditions or indoors. 

Penney said the horses' personalities are a large part of what makes polo so appealing. Within the group of horses at Newport Polo Club, she explained, there are friendships and rivalries. One horse — aptly named Romeo — even has a "harem" of female horses. 

The first time Yang played a polo match, he was not completely clear on all of the game's rules, he said. He added that he was pleasantly surprised that his horse apparently knew what was going on during the match most of the time. "I trusted him to take me to where I needed to be," he said. 

"You're on a horse, hitting balls with a stick — what more could you want?" Williams said.

 

Looking ahead

Penney said the team's highest priorities are currently fundraising and recruiting. Because the club is relatively new, it does not have the same fundraising base as teams at Yale and Harvard, which recently received a large donation from actor Tommy Lee Jones, Hughes said. 

The team's ultimate goal is to join the Brown athletics department, as the polo teams at Yale and Harvard have become members of their respective athletic departments, and become a "strong competitor" in the Ivy League, Hughes said. The club has not yet been able to arrange a meeting with representatives from the department, she said, but in the meantime, it has continued to compete with other university polo teams. For the first time, Brown's men's polo team will be competing in the Northeastern Intercollegiate Preliminary Tournament in Portsmouth next month. 

Penney offered some prospective projects for the future, including a club trip to Texas or Florida "to ride every day for a week" in the warm weather during the winter and volunteering at a nearby therapeutic riding center to show the club's charitable side.

 

 The afterglow

On the drive back to Providence, Ramos Rosas, Chia and Williams talk excitedly about that day's practice, which included a scrimmage with the nationally ranked Newport Interscholastic Girls Polo Team. 

They mostly talk about the horses and their riding experiences — "Romeo was great today!" they exclaim. Though it is growing colder and darker outside, and there is barely room enough for five people and three mallets, the atmosphere in the car is one of warmth and camaraderie. As Williams drives, he sums up the experience ­— "I've done a lot of awesome stuff in my life, but polo is by far the most awesome." 




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