By EMMETT HALL
Polo, known as the sport of kings, will have to make room for a more inclusive title for the women who are making their way on the field.
Polo has been a male-dominated sport since its inception, but there have been some inroads made by female players over the years. Helen Roche, a Lauderdale-By-The-Sea resident, caught the polo bug eight years ago when she was introduced to snow polo in Colorado and is now playing at the polo grounds in Wellington.
So what is an Irish girl from the Bronx doing playing professional polo?
The native New Yorker was an equestrian jumper and always exhibited a passion for horses but yearned for the team competition and action of polo. Roche got her introduction to the sport by learning and playing the game in Aspen. She has been transformed into an ardent ambassador of the sport.
“After I caught the polo fever, I thought if I’m going to do this, I’m going all the way, so I packed up everything in Colorado, drove cross-country and headed to Wellington — the capital of polo in North America,” Roche said. “I settled in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea and have my own team, RochePolo, and play on other people’s teams as well.
“I really want polo to get the exposure and encourage people to get involved with polo as a spectator, sponsor or a player,” she said. “I can give the perspective of a woman in a male-dominated sport. Most of South Florida is only 30 to 45 minutes away from the Wellington grounds so everything is very accessible. Polo is right here in our backyard and you can enjoy it with your family.”
The International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington is one of the top polo clubs in the world with seven spectator-friendly, state-of-the-art tournament fields. With about 250 acres, the facility is equipped with an elite and private club with social facilities, restaurants, a fitness center, tennis and an expansive infinity pool.
The International Polo School offers lessons to all ages and skill levels and is available seven days a week. Roche plays at several of the polo clubs.
“I’m addicted and passionate about the sport and people can go up to a number of clubs like Grand Champions Polo Club and get safe lessons,” Roche said. “You get a school horse and learn the basics and if you want to progress in the sport you need to be very dedicated. Polo is a contact sport and 80% of the game is the horse and we train very hard.
“It’s a dangerous sport with eight players and two umpires on 1,000-pound horses traveling over 30 mph and your focus is always on your horse. At 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds, and as an equestrian jumper, I prefer a taller, larger horse. Most polo players are sleek and fit. I’m one of five girls in my family and as a woman, I always feel I have to prove myself on the field.”
COVID-19 has had an impact on the sport as travel restrictions have curtailed many players from entering the country. General admission for spectators has been temporarily suspended at some clubs, but tickets for brunch at the IPC’s Veuve Cliquot Pavilion can be purchased.
“When I was growing up riding equestrian, polo for women really wasn’t an option,” Roche said. “People looked at me and thought I was crazy because it’s rough out there and can be dangerous. I’ve dedicated my life to polo and last year I played in nine different countries. When you are playing it’s all about teamwork and strategy, which makes it a lot of fun. I’m on my horses every day and the backbone of our sport is the grooms who do everything for our horses.”
Argentina is credited with being the capital of polo and has the largest number of 10-handicap players in the world. Polo is an important part of the country’s culture and some of the best polo ponies in the world are bred there.
“The Argentines are very family-oriented, which is beautiful to see and I go there every year,” Roche said. “They dominate the sport and have great horses. In the polo world, we all know each other and the men are respectful and supportive. I have never felt discriminated against by any of the male Argentines. Polo is a family world. I’ve always been greeted with open arms and encouragement and I’m blessed to be welcomed in this world.”
Roche has a fierce determination with a single-minded purpose when she is playing. Being told that women don’t play polo just fuels her motivation. A strong work ethic from her Irish roots was instilled in Roche and her siblings by their parents and grandparents. It’s all about making the right plays for the team and there is always the constant self-evaluation and introspective desire to play better and improve from match to match. Polo is more than a job for Roche — it’s a lifestyle.
“As soon as the ball drops the only thing you’re thinking about is polo and it is the most beautiful feeling in the world,” she said. “Being on the field with your teammates and opponents and you’re on this beautiful creature and you feel the ground shake like thunder underneath you. They are some of my happiest memories, especially when you win a big match. As a woman, you feel on top of the world and I feel so blessed. It makes me feel very proud.”
Tournament play continues at the International Polo Club. The RochePolo club plays in the medium-goal division. For Roche, the highlight of the sport is the opportunity to compete and play with high-goal players and Hall of Famers. But she said the biggest thrill is being able to share polo with the public.
For information, email RochePolo@yahoo.com.