According to Meredith Shea, Penn and polo have a history — and she’s not talking about popped collars.
Shea, a College sophomore, an ex-coxswain for the men’s crew team and an enthusiast of the traditionally English sport of polo, says she’s read of a Penn team that played in tournaments with Harvard, Princeton and Yale sometime around World War II.
Today, she is working to bring polo back to Penn, and after a promising turnout at the group’s first meeting last Thursday, things are trotting along.
“I’m open to anyone who wants to try it,” Shea said of the sport, which she described as hockey on horseback. In arena polo, teams of three riders use wooden mallets to knock a ball — slightly larger than a baseball — between the opponent’s goalposts. Games are broken up into six periods, or “chuckers,” of seven minutes apiece.
Shea said she is planning a clinic in April for beginners, adding that the United States Polo Association will be sending a couple of professional players to help run it. She has applied for membership to U.S. Polo, and if all goes according to plan, the organization will financially support her venture.
Shea began playing polo when she was fourteen after a stint with English and rodeo-style riding. Since arriving at Penn last fall, she has dedicated a significant portion of her time to getting the club off the ground.
While she has the go-ahead from the Student Activities Council, the backing is only verbal — recently, the council’s budget deficit has required that it withhold the extension of funds to new student groups. “I just applied for a 2,000-dollar grant,” Shea said, smiling — she is optimistic that U.S. Polo will oblige.
But capable as she is, Shea is not planning to wrangle this project alone. After extensive research and a trip out to Fairmont Park’s Chamounix Stables, she has recruited the help of Philadelphia polo revolutionary Lezlie Hiner.
In 1994, Hiner founded the local nonprofit Work to Ride, an organization that allows inner-city youth to trade barn work for hours in the saddle. Now she has agreed to coach both the men’s and women’s teams to-be for the time being — and she is doing so free of charge.
“Until we really get it going, we’re going to have to play it by ear,” Hiner said about her compensation, and such is her outlook on the future of Penn’s program. “We don’t have any horses yet. Our main impetus is to use the horses that we have right here at our facility. Hopefully, we’re going to be able to practice at Valley Forge and we’ll go from there.”
Shea also intends to recruit interested Penn students to aid her in chairing the club. While none of the twenty or so students who attended last Wednesday’s meeting had played polo before, Shea says that Steph Johnson, a College freshman with over a decade of riding experience — and one of Shea’s sisters in Chi Omega sorority — is a likely candidate for vice president.
“If you know how to ride, it’s 80 percent of the game,” Shea explained.
Under Hiner’s guidance, Shea and Johnson would be just one player short of the three needed to field a team in arena polo. If they can pull it off, Penn will play Harvard and Vassar in the fall. Both teams belong to what Harvard men’s captain, JP Stilz, refers to as “the second tier” of collegiate polo, behind top-tier programs like Virginia, Cornell and Connecticut.
Stilz too is hopeful about Penn’s entrance into the world of collegiate polo, as Harvard’s program has a similar history. After disappearing in the mid-20th century, the program re-emerged five years ago and now has 18 members.
“To set up a program that will last, you only need three players,” Stilz said. “It’s exciting to see Penn getting into it.”
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