Designer RINAA SHAH fell in love with polo after watching a live game, and did not rest until she had learnt to play it professionally. The first Indian woman polo player tells us how it changed her life
“We are given one life and we should make the most of it.” Designer Rinaa Shah has made that her life’s mantra. The shoe designer, known for her label Rinaldi, was 39 when she decided to learn to play polo, after she watched a live game in Mumbai. “I saw how the horses were going majestically all over the field; the adrenaline rush was just insane,” she remembers. “I did not even think I could play, but I wanted to start with riding horses, something that I had never done.”
“I lived on a polo farm for a month and learned and practised day and night; I was focused on my goal of playing the game even if just at an amateur level.”
Wasting no time, she signed up to learn riding, which took her a year; the stint was peppered with a few falls and fractures. Egged on by the encouragement of the riding staff at Mahalakshmi Racecourse in Mumbai, she resolved to learn the game and went on to some of the most renowned international schools in the US and Argentina to learn. “I lived on a polo farm for a month and learned and practised day and night; I was focused on my goal of playing the game even if just at an amateur level,” Rinaa smiles. And she went on to play, at an amateur level, in Jodhpur. The win her team experienced pushed her further to work harder and advance levels. By then, she had already overcome the initial challenge – not knowing how to ride – since most people who play the sport have been riding since childhood. She also gave a fitting reply to the naysayers who had taunted her about her age and her inadequate riding skills at the beginning, by getting right back on her horse and starting over. Some of them are now her friends, also playing on her team. Yes, once she was consistent on the polo circuit, playing tournaments back-to-back, she launched her team – Rinaldi Polo – featuring India’s top names including Arjuna Awardee Samir Suhag, Chirag Parekh, Gaurav Sehgal and herself.
The biggest challenge, however, was the one she faced from her family. Raised in a conservative Gujarati family, she had not been allowed to take up athletics in school. “I had to give up my dream as I was young and could not fight… and was soon married at the age of 21 to a suitable groom from my community,” she mentions. Post marriage, she was finally able to take control of her life, and went on to become a professional player who travelled across the globe for matches. “I could not change the way society thought at that time, but neither was I willing to quit, so I just stopped paying heed.”
“I looked at the world differently; I saw how the animal gave so much back and loved what the sport brought to my life.”
Rinaa clearly remembers how the course of her life, and life itself, changed the day she sat on a horse. “I looked at the world differently; I saw how the animal gave so much back and loved what the sport brought to my life,” she smiles. “I was already 39 and was running a successful business but this sport and the horses I rode taught me patience, love, discipline and teamwork.”
Most importantly, her wins gave Rinaa a sense of accomplishment that she had never experienced before. That gave her wings to fly and meet other enthusiasts who brought different skills to the table. Finally, her close circle started looking at her differently, and being proud of her. Because she loves what she does, she does not feel weighed down by life; her polo practice becomes her mode of unwinding. Otherwise, she loves listening to music or sipping her favourite cocktail after a long, hard day.
“I do not think about what people will say, or about my age or my gender; I just dive in with passion and give it my best shot. Even if I fail, at least I will have tried and failed!”
Rina knows the sport comes with its own risks – it is dangerous and one has to be super alert on the field. “Unfortunately, it is also a very expensive sport, so only a certain section of society can afford to play it, which is sad,” she sighs. The multifaceted woman – who, apart from being a successful designer and entrepreneur, is also a dancer qualified in two classical forms and a restaurant promoter – believes that her ability to seize an opportunity when it comes is what has helped her propel herself to the position she is in. “I do not think about what people will say, or about my age or my gender; I just dive in with passion and give it my best shot. Even if I fail, at least I will have tried and failed! We are given one life and we should make the most of it,” she tells anyone who is looking to seize the day. “Anything else is an excuse for either being lazy or being worried about what others will say. Take the chance, for life might not give it to you again!”