Story provided by www.pspolo.com, written by Jewel Connelly.
On Friday, June 30, 2017, the world recognized Shariah Harris as the first African American woman to play high-goal polo, a moment in history aided by Postage Stamp Farm’s patron Annabelle Gundlach. She made news on such platforms as the Huffington Post, Business Insider, and Daily Mail. Although this life-changing decision landed Harris on the national stage, this was only the most recent in a series of monumental doors she’s knocked down in her polo career and personal life.
Harris is a graduate of the Work To Ride (WTR) program, a community-based prevention program that aids disadvantaged urban youth though constructive activities centered on horsemanship, equine sports and education firmly rooted in polo. Harris capitalized on her growing skills to become not only the first member to attend an ivy league institution (with a full-ride scholarship), but the first African-American woman on the Cornell University polo team. A true polo pioneer, she has faced the task of defying perceptions of gender and race with poise at every turn. Continuing on the path of success carved before her by big brother figure, fellow WTR alum and polo professional, 2-goaler Kareem Rosser, Harris is herself courageously blazing new territory, beckoning anyone to follow and inspiring many to break the mold.
Prior to her debut in the USPA Silver Cup® at Greenwich Polo Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, with Postage Stamp Farm, Harris had just spent her Freshman year at Cornell playing Varsity intercollegiate polo. While accustomed to swift adjustments and plays in arena polo, 19-year-old Harris was about to experience the game on a completely new, accelerated level, strategizing with legends and professionals she had always admired. Subbing for injured Gundlach, Harris was excited to accept the challenge, transitioning with her acceptance into a larger symbol of progress.
“You watch high-goal and you know that it’s a lot faster, but you don’t grasp how quick everything is until you’re actually on the field playing,” Harris remarks. “Instead of thinking five plays ahead you have to think 10 plays ahead and know your position. We had this little joke, ‘If Kris Kampsen is running towards you at full speed at a 90-degree angle, move out of his way!'”
Harris’s valiant effort to hold her own on the field didn’t go unnoticed by opponent Mariano Aguerre, who she was admittedly the most starstruck to meet. The pro had some encouraging words for his courageous young rival. “I’m impressed by Shariah’s guts and determination; she has the talent and the attitude to make it in any kind of polo,” Aguerre stated. “Shariah was given this amazing chance to jump in with a top organization and she is grabbing this opportunity by the horns! She’s been guiding it and enjoying it like not many players have done it before.”
Harris has risen to the top of the headlines because of one distinguishing facet of her identity: race, but her groundbreaking opportunity opens up a greater dialogue about how to increase diversity in polo demographics, the key to ensuring the future of the sport in North America. Without the gift of Work To Ride, Harris would not have been exposed to polo nor had the resources to pursue such a capital intensive sport. Harris was able to make history as a direct result of her involvement in Work To Ride and she stresses the importance of accessibility. “Polo can be more accessible through the creation and increased support of programs like Work To Ride. The key is to start in cities where kids wouldn’t be able to do it without the help of the program.”
Kareem Rosser echoes Harris’s observations and he is doing something about it as executive director of Friends of Work To Ride, the fundraising arm responsible for raising funds to support the WTR program. Considered the best African-American polo player in the U.S., Rosser too received an invaluable gift in the form of WTR, the chance to escape the crime-filled streets of West Philadelphia and make a name for himself. The former powerhouse of Colorado State University’s varsity polo team, Rosser led the Rams to claim the 2015 National Title after a 16-year dry spell and was named USPA Collegiate Player of the Year. Now a successful financial analyst, this “Fresh Prince of Polo” talks about the effects of WTR as the catalyst of change.
Tell me about the first time you met Shariah.
She reminded me of myself in a sense because we both came from similar backgrounds. I remember her mom being so passionate about her children (Shariah and sister She’ree) and excited about them joining the WTR program because of the opportunities it would afford them.
What are Shariah’s strengths as a player and what do you admire the most about her?
Her tenacious attitude and her will to strive to be good at everything that she does. She excels in the classroom and that is one thing I truly admire, but being a woman in polo and many sports can be hard to make a name for yourself and she’s obviously made a name for herself. She was accepted into Cornell University and started her first year on the varsity polo team. Then getting the opportunity to play in the high-goal, it just speaks volumes about who she is as a person. Just her will and beating all the odds that were against her is something that many people should admire and look up to. And that’s just mainly hard work on her end.
Do you believe WORKING to ride has made you a better all-around player and horseman?
Certainly. I think the most important part of becoming a good polo player is really understanding the work that goes into making both a horse and a player really great. That means putting in the work, doing things around the barn, understanding how the operation works and what makes a horse work and building team chemistry. It’s so essential and I think that truly helped me become a better player and also opened up opportunities for me because I was well-rounded. I’m not someone who just showed up on the field and played polo and left. I spent my time in the barn and I understood the horses, the people, and all that goes into the sport.
Is there anything about the polo industry that you wish you could change or you feel needs to evolve?
More opportunity. Giving kids who are less fortunate a real opportunity to play on a high level, and not even just kids whose backgrounds are similar to mine and Shariah’s. It’s hard because the sport costs a lot of money, but that’s why we need people opening up doors for these kids who are less fortunate and creating more programs similar to WTR. I would like to see more funding put towards a program like WTR so we could produce more kids like Shariah.
What do you think Shariah’s opening into high-goal means for other people of color and their perceptions of polo?
I think as a woman in general it’s just tough in polo to make a name for yourself aside from other competing factors. I would hope it brings awareness of what the sport looks like and give people more reasons to diversify that identity. Shariah will hopefully inspire other little girls regardless of their race and age to break into the sport knowing that it’s been done before.
Rosser’s hope for Harris’s impact on the community has already begun to take effect, igniting a chain reaction only a month in the making. “I’ve had some friends reach out to me and ask, ‘how did you start playing polo? How can I learn?’,” Harris revealed. “It’s putting polo out there because a lot of people where I come from in Philadelphia have never been exposed to the sport. This is helping to put the polo name out there across the U.S. and sparking an interest in people’s minds. That in turn will hopefully get them to go out and research to see what it’s all about.”
Work To Ride works. It develops champions. It saves lives with the love of horses, camaraderie, and competition. It breeds inclusivity, teaches responsibility and instills accountability. The results are in–Harris, Rosser, and countless others like them are a solid investment in the preservation of polo for generations to come.