Chip McKenney, CEO/CFO of Phelps Media Group International and an avid polo player, moderated a two-day panel at the 2016 United States Polo Association (USPA) Board of Governors annual meeting in April in West Palm Beach, Florida. The first panel addressed Team USPA’s 2015 near-win in the 2015 Federation of International Polo (FIP) World Polo Championship in Chile. The second panel focused on the growth and future of women in polo, along with the impact of the Women’s Championship Tournaments (WCT).
Team USPA in FIP World Polo Championship
McKenney prefaced the panel discussion with an overview of the 2015 FIP Final, which had a 14-goal minimum team requirement. He highlighted the impressive performance of the United States, which was undefeated going into the final. After taking victories over defending champion Argentina, as well as powerhouses Brazil and England, Team USPA lost the final to Chile 12-11 in overtime. The handicaps of each of the U.S. players were subsequently raised.
McKenney posed a variety of questions to members of the Team USPA lineup who brought home the silver medal in the 2015 FIP World Polo Championship Final (Jesse Bray, Remy Muller, Patrick Uretz, Felipe Viana and Jared Sheldon), who participated on the panel with their coach, Joel Baker. He asked about their learning experiences in Chile.
“One of the things I learned was how to handle the pressure with having so many people look at you,” said Viana. “Not only the press but the thousands of people watching. They were supporting the other team, but there was still pressure. So then when you play the 20-goal (in the U.S.) you already feel like you have gone through that kind of pressure, and you just play your game. Chile made me a better player, a more complete player. Chile helped with a way of playing that I wasn’t used to.”
McKenney asked Remy Muller, who was named Sportsman of the Tournament, about his views on sportsmanship in polo. “Sportsmanship in international polo is more important that polo that we normally play because sportsmanship is a language barrier, and it’s just international decency that other countries can get respect for you for that,” said Muller. “When you are representing your country throughout a tournament I feel like this is someone’s first impression of playing an international game with the USA, and I would like to give them a good impression of the U.S.”
The 2015 Team USPA lineup was recognized for having a special chemistry among the players, coach and support staff. “Everyone in the finals scored, and I think that just goes to show our teamwork. The people off the field were just as important as the people on the field,” said Uretz. “People’s roles changed, but we were all one unit. Everyone was a part of what we were doing. Being together for months before and starting to realize that we were committed to these guys and everyone was going to be a part of what we were doing helped a lot.”
Sheldon said: “I think it goes back to thecamaraderie as a team. Patrick had never played back before, and he played two tournaments at back for us in the beginning. We all worked together and everyone kind of fit into their roles. We all played really well; it was a lot of fun and it was the team together. We didn’t have to talk, we knew.”
Viana noted that the team motto was “to make sure you make the other player better, and not only think about yourself. That is something that definitely took us further. It took us a while to understand it because it took us a while to start winning, and towards the end it worked out.”
“The biggest challenge was the horses and getting to know your teammates,” said Uretz. “Here you know your teammates, but internationally, you don’t know them. You become a team really quick and get to know their weaknesses. The hard part is not knowing the team or the horses and trying to figure everything out as quick as you can with the limited resources that you have.”
Advice for young players
McKenney asked the panel for their advice to young, up-and-coming players. Uretz stressed sportsmanship and horsemanship. “People take note of who acts right and treats horses right. Remember that everything you do is watched by a lot of eyes. Make sure you are doing things properly,” he said.
Muller’s opinion was: “Be a hard worker, and do everything you can do. Don’t come with an attitude and expect handouts. Find something you are good at and a skill that you can do really well. Keep working hard and get yourself noticed.”
Sheldon added, “You have to be able to get on any type of horse and go forward when you have adversity thrown at you.”
Women in Polo
The women’s panel on day two of the USPA meeting was composed of Maureen Brennan, owner of the Virginia International Polo Club in Middleburg, Virginia;Erica Gandomcar-Sachs, owner of the Denver Polo Club and chair of the USPA Women’s Tournament Committee; and Cristina Fernandez, one of the first female members of Team USPA and club marketing coordinator for the USPA.
McKenney pointed out the tremendous, steady growth of women in polo and the Women’s Championship Tournaments (WCT) in recent years. Founded in 2005, WCT currently organizes close to 20 events annually. It held its 11th Season Finals in 2016. Female membership in the USPA has more than doubled in the past 15 years, from 713 in the year 2000 to 1,936 on Dec. 31, 2015.
“I’ll never forget playing on the field as a little girl, and my horse went down and we tripped, and a boy came over and said to me, ‘That’s why women shouldn’t be on the field,'” said Gandomcar-Sachs. “After that day I decided I was going to fight to enhance women’s polo. It’s not just about women players; it’s about women in polo. We’re just coming off that momentum with what Sunny Hale created with the WCT and knocking down these barriers and saying, ‘We can look good and we can play hard, too.'”
Importance of the WCT
“I think in polo worldwide, you have to have something to aspire to,” saidGandomcar-Sachs. “People aspire to play in the U.S. Open. The WCT gives women a platform that they can play on. They can go around the country and have these qualifiers and be a part of something that’s greater and bigger. The WCT has given women a voice and a platform and has put them in the spotlight. Sunny and her mom (Sue Sally Hale) created this platform so now this new generation can come forward and be ambassadors for our sport.”
Brennan commented, “A women’s league and tournament is a vehicle for some of these women to get in (the sport). I went to women’s polo after I was playing mixed polo, and I found both traditional and women’s polo actually helped each other. Since the WCT was created by Sunny Hale, it took it completely to another level. As Sunny says, ‘Women’s polo had a black eye prior to WCT.’ Now polo’s organized, it’s based on USPA rules and clubs have to adhere to those rules, so when you go to play polo you know what you’re getting. It’s a consistent, understandable, relatable structure that allows people to enjoy what they love.”
Fernandez said, “For me the WCT is a great way to showcase the women players out there. It’s a great way to meet other women and see other women excelling at the sport.”
Two handicap systems
McKenney asked the panel to compare the two handicap systems – the women’s handicap system and the USPA handicap system. “Once again ,we thank Sunny Hale,” said Brennan. “She created the women’s handicap system, and it really addressed the problem. This handicap system, it’s a simple translation. When you have a regular handicap, you automatically get a women’s handicap. Once you start playing polo in women’s outdoor grass events, and you get observed, maybe your handicap changes. It’s stretched out. There’s zero through 10, and there are no minuses; women actually have the ability to receive a reward for their participation. It shows them where they’ve improved. The handicap system has really helped balance the teams. I’m seeing the change. It has made a huge difference.”
Benefits of Team USPA
Fernandez, one of the first three women named to Team USPA, then explained how she sees Team USPA offering or creating opportunities for women players now and in the future. “For me, joining Team USPA opened up a lot of doors,” she said. “I come from a polo family but not necessarily a high-goal polo family. I was familiar with all of the bases, but I’m not sure they really took us seriously in terms of being professional. So it really opened doors for me to get to talk to a lot of the pros and encouraged them to consider hiring me to work and be able to play. I worked with Luis Escobar my second season in Florida , which led to the opportunity to play a 12-goal fully, mounted. I helped run his polo school, and that was a huge opportunity for me that I wouldn’t have been able to get without Team USPA.”
Gandomcar-Sachs and Brennan discussed how they manage their own clubs and how their experiences with the USPA have helped. “For me, this whole process is all about opportunities and opening up doors for younger players coming in,” said Gandomcar-Sachs. “At my club opportunities are handed out left and right because that’s how I’ve ended up where I am. The people who want to jump on it and are excited enough and hungry enough to take that opportunity and run with it, those are the ones that you want and will go to the top of their sport.”
Said Brennan: “I don’t consider myself a woman when I’m on the field. I want to be chosen because of my horses, how I play, how I’ll listen and how I’ll add to the team. On a women’s team it’s the same. I just see women’s polo as a chance to mentor a little more.”