“Lying to myself helped me to bounce back”

By Andrés Ugarte Larraín

In terms of sport, Saturday May 6 marks a start of a new high goal season at the Polo de Paris. But in addition to a new season of polo in Paris, the date brings a much more significant comeback to the fields as well: Clemente Zavaleta is back on the saddle, ready to play with Sainte Mesme, following an extraordinary recovery from a heavy fall, on March 17 2022, while playing in Wellington, which required a long and exhausting rehabilitation.

“I was a bit nervous because I’ve been thinking about this day since I got on a horse again, late November”, Corchito told PoloLine.

And quickly, as the fierce competitive player he’s always been, he added: “I was very angry on Saturday when the match finished, because I wanted to win. We were able to tie at the end of the third chukka, but we lost concentration, and our contenders scored three goals. I am happy to play again, but one forgets what happened. I mean, I don’t know whether I should be happy or not, but definetly yes, I am happy, because this was unthinkable not so long time ago”.

The continuous affection and well wishes the polo community demonstrated to Clemente’s and Maria Emilia’s son were indeed very moving; and not only by the time the accident happened, but also when news broke that he had woken up and started his path to recovery. “Each message helped a lot”, he assures.

Gratitude was a constant during this conversation. “I want to express my gratitude to Sainte Mesme, to Alexandra and Robert Strom, to the whole family, for giving me the opportunity to play with them. I was told by Sainte Mesme that they counted me in to play on May 6, so I brought horses. All of it was an inspiration for me to reach this day”.

He assures that “the first thing I recovered was the physical aspect; although, I don’t know why, I’ve always tried much harder. One thing I did during all that time was lie to myself; that’s what helped me to bounce back. I’ve always thought I could make it. I don’t know whether I was aware of the circumstances or whether I wanted to be; but the fact is that I was playing practices with a patch in my eye, and thinking that I would be ready to play in February as if nothing had happened. And the truth is that I started to improve in April; that’s when I really started to play, to be honest. My aims always went further”.

Slowly, Clemente Zavaleta started to remember, to recover memories; May, June, each day were crucial in order to think what would come up next, not only aiming to a possible comeback, but mostly to the biggest challenge, to recover his vital functions, both physical and psycological. “My trainers were crucial in this process. I trained a lot with Cote Marín, who came with me to do my rehabilitation in Atlanta, and I guess it was the best decision I made. I’ve also worked with Jorgito Fretes. So, that training allowed me to be well prepared by the time I got back on a horse again, in late November, when I didn’t know how I would be able to react or feel. And I remember I got on the horse, spinned around the horse track and started to stick-and-ball again”, shares Sainte Mesme’s player.

In terms of sport, he went step by step: training, get ready to get on a horse, stick-and-ball; everything meant a step further, because polo is a contact sport. “When I started to loose up, to play with confidence, to feel secure and secure of myself, I felt I was ready to play again”. 

Although he’s been a reserved, low profile person, a little emotion is perceived at times. “I remember the moment I woke up; I remember a window on my left, and I don’t know why, I though I was in Europe, I was really sure of it. I did know I had a very important appointment. I remembered the day before, when my wife told me that my daughets would come and if I wanted to see them, I had to talk. I thought to get up as well, but it was impossible. And that’s when I started talking. The only thing I thought is that I was ill. But up next, around May 15, 20, I recovered my consciousness, my memories, remember a whole day, and even walked. And I was discharged on early July”. 

He continues: “Obviously, the doctor told me that I would never be able to play again. Moreover, there was a chance to stay in the United States until January. I had a scanner test every two weeks, and according to the result, they told me whether I could get on a plane in 2 weeks or 6 months. The rehabilitation went through two phases: in the first, I remained in the hospital; in the second phase, it was an outpatient rehabilitation; I mean, I had to go to the hospital, and then come back to the appartament where we were staying. As soon I was discharged, I inmediatly asked when I could be able to get on a plane. They said in two weeks, and in two weeks time, I went to France, that was early July”.

Currently, he is back on the saddle, battling competitive as ever, while playing the Tournoi de Printemps at the Polo de Paris. He says “There are moments when you feel frustrated because it is a process and you have to learn many things again. And the one thing that pushed me forward was that the process was a marathon. I am more and more aware about what I went through and I always remember new things. I have my moments, though. But definetly, I was very lucky”. 

In terms of polo, one remembers who is and who was Clemente Zavaleta, through his participations in several competitions, such as the Argentine Open, the most coveted polo trophy of the world; in high goal in Sotogrande and Wellington, even his plans to play the qualification in 2022, which, of course, never happened. “It was very hard for me to get where I am, and I dream to be back one day. But I go slowly. I am very aware of it when I play, when I do stick-and-ball; I am aware when I hit the ball, I am aware of everything. I feel I am improving a lot as well as I am well aware of my mistakes and I feel I am growing more and more as a player. On one side, it feels helplessness, but I quickly remind myself about all I believed before April, when I was in Argentina and I thought I woudn’t be able to do it. Today, I am confident enough to believe that I will achieve my goals for the upcoming months, both in Europe and Argentina”.

Gratitude is a constant when memories and people emerge as time and memories go by; and mostly if it’s about people either close or unknown, both in equal terms. “There are a lot of people I want to thank. My friends were a crucial part on this, because they helped a lot, they supported me, they listened to me, they were beside me when I started to play practices and they all contributed with remarkable issues. To Corinne Ricard, who invited me to play a tournament in Argentina this year, that helped me to bounce back. My aunts and uncles, my parents, the whole polo community. I will forget many, for sure; but I want to thank each and every one of them; those who remained by my side only one minute, to bring me positive vibes”. 

And he remarks over and over again: “I don’t understand why people has been and is so good to me, because I am neither a good person nor a great player. When I was in Atlanta last year, I used my wife’s telephone to talk; many people left audio messages, and I wasn’t much conscious of it. I look back, and it feels incredible. Even today there are many people who still call me to ask me how I feel. Every message helped me a lot”. 

“But, above all, I want to thank my wife, who was always by my side”.

And he concludes, always looking forward: “We will play our next match on Saturday. And I am getting ready as I always did, in order to remain concentrated. I relieved the big burden to playing again, and from now onwards, it is always looking forward, play better every day and keep growing”.  

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