Dancing the Dance



Adam Snow joins the elite corps of 10-goal players, making it an even dozen.

by Gwen Rizzo

Adam Snow never dreamed of being a high-goal polo player. In fact, if he thought about being a professional athlete, his early dreams would have him playing hockey in the big leagues. He didn’t plan for a polo career, wasn’t even thinking about it, it just happened that way. No matter what the plans were, this month Adam receives his USPA membership card with a 10-goal rating, something only a handful of USPA members will ever see.

Adam grew up in Hamilton, Massachusetts, a rural suburb of Boston. He also lived in Japan for two and one-half years, from second to fifth grade. When he returned at about 10 years old, his grandfather Crocker Snow got him stick and balling. “He got me started stick and balling on his little field on his place in Ipswich, Massachusetts. It was about 120 yards long and we would go out and stick and ball. If I missed the ball he would make me do a circle, keep the horse on the same lead and then try to hit it again.” He also played bicycle polo with his brothers, Andrew and Josh, in the family’s circular driveway after school and on weekends.

Adam’s father, Terry, played polo, and about age 12 Adam played in his first family practice. His Uncle Don Little and Don’s son Doo were playing that day. “Doo, about five years older than me, was already an accomplished 1-goal player. Dave Roberts was working for Don, and I’d watch them stick and ball and was ga-ga!” Unfortunately, after his first practice game Adam had lost all interest in polo for a few years. “Out of the first throw-in I hit the ball three times in a row. I got so surprised and excited I sort of fell off on my own. I was scared but I got back on, and the horse, Scooter, [threw me off]. The third time I really got bucked off. From then until I was about 14 I didn’t want to see a horse.

It wasn’t until the local Myopia Polo Club held a summer clinic with about a dozen or so kids Adam’s age that his polo interest resurfaced. “There were 12 kids in the summer clinic who were all playing against each other. That was when I forgot the horse and started chasing the little white ball around and loving it.”
Adam’s father kept about five or six horses in his own string, which his boys helped take care of.

As a teenager he continued to play with the other kids in the summer. They would go to Saratoga to play or Saratoga would come to Myopia. “That became a huge deal for us. I remember playing against Brad Alexander, Bill Farish and Richie and Tim Jones and that was really exciting. … That was the key to my interest, probably getting a little bit competitive with the other kids my age. … Doo would get to play kids’ polo when Gene and Paul Fortugno would come into Myopia to play. I remember studying everything they did and wanting to copy them. They were great players—fast and had fun.”

By 16 he groomed during the summer so he’d get a chance to play.

But polo was just for fun. He also took summer jobs like working in a real estate office and as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Adam would come home from work, jump on a horse and ride to Bird’s field in Ipswich to stick and ball. When he and his brother Andrew played together, they made up special drills. “We would do these [drills] endlessly on the little field on my grandfather’s farm. It was a hayfield with a boulder part-way sticking out of the ground in the middle of the field. It had a lot of character. Now sometimes when I’m in a big game, I try to remember that boulder on that field that I learned to play on. … It is kind of a centering symbol for me.”

When Adam was about 17, he and his brother decided to coach polo clinics to make money. “We’d send out letters and we’d get all the players at Myopia to lend one clinic horse. In the morning we’d drive the trailer and go barn to barn collecting all the clinic horses. We’d bring them to Bird’s field or our little field. ... I am still bumping into people that we had in our clinic.”

Once Adam started to focus on college, polo was no longer an interest. “My athletic goal was to play college hockey. I was always small for my age, even through high school. I just really had this urge to try to play Division I college hockey. Because I was so small, I decided to take a year off, thinking it would be good. I might be more ready to study and get some more out of college. It also gave me more time to grow and improve my hockey.” He was accepted at Yale, then deferred for a year while he went to Sweden. “My stepmother is Swedish. She had family that I could live with in Sweden and I got a spot on a sort of semi-pro team, which was in between the good team and the B team. I’d sit for the semi-pro games, but mostly I was on a team that was playing good-level hockey for me to play.

“Growing up and spending a couple of years in Japan at a young age, I always wanted to travel, see different cultures and try to learn some different language. I learned Swedish. Sweden has almost a socialistic government, and they have free classes for foreigners and I got in one of those. I planned to spend all year there, but I was told I could only spend three months on a tourist visa. In the end I got to spend four months. I left and got a job in a factory in Manchester, England where I played lacrosse. I ended up getting a Europass and traveling around Europe.”

Once he began school at Yale he really wanted to play hockey but also continued to play lacrosse. In lacrosse he started every game, was a high-scoring freshman and Ivy League player of the week a few times. While there the team beat Harvard for the first time in 10 years. “I had a great year.” He also played hockey for four years. By his second year, he got to play two varsity games. “I dressed for two games of the varsity my sophomore year. I was thrilled to get to start two games. I played defense. The first game was against Cornell, and Joe Newendike was on the ice. He is still playing in the NHL.”

Adam’s interest in hockey came about through his father, who had played varsity hockey at Harvard. “I wish I had played soccer. I liked hockey, soccer and polo. The passing in those three sports is very similar—giving the ball or puck into an open space, give-and-go plays—they’re all team sports.” Adam was 4 goals by the time he graduated from school but hadn’t played while there.  After graduating Adam applied for a Fulbright Fellowship. Unfortunately, the Fulbright Fellowship wasn’t to be for Adam. Not sure what to do, he decided to go to Argentina.

“I knew a couple of players who had played in the East Coast Open in Myopia. One was Juan Martin Zavaleta, and the other was Juan Lalor. First Juan was going to get him into some tournament polo. But it fell through, so Juan Martin said, ‘Well, come on down. At least you can ride and we’ll figure out what you can do when you get down here.’ I thought I could improve my polo, learn Spanish, and live in another culture, so I went. Juan Martin and his wife were very nice to put me up in their house. Juan said, ‘Look I only have 12 horses. I need to get you something where you can improve.’ He was playing with La Espedanos in the Tortugas Open at the time and said, ‘Let me talk to Gonzalo Pieres.’ Through Juan Martin they got me the job with Hector Barrantes. I ended up getting to spend three or four months there.

“Hector had seen me play kids’ polo in Saratoga. When I arrived at the farm he said, ‘There are your eight horses. Ride them everyday with everybody else and always have a reason for what you’re doing with a horse. I don’t care if it’s wrong, but always have a reason.’ I got to play 10 practice games, which seems like scant few, but I realized afterwards that I learned so much by being around Hector, listening to him hold court while he was drinking mate´ or having a barbecue down at the bunkhouse where we all lived. It was just horse talk 24 hours a day.”

The last month he was there was spent at Pilar, where they would bring the good horses so people could try them. Adam got in some practices there. Former 10-goaler Alfonso Pieres was at one of those practices and got to see Adam play. He invited Adam to join him and Peter Orthwein in the 22-goal league the next season in Florida. It was an opportunity to see if Adam was good enough to play one winter professionally in Florida, have fun, and then he could get serious and get his “real job.” Adam’s father lent some horses. He played in the 16-goal with George Haas and the 22-goal with Orthwein and Pieres. Then the Rolex team hired him to play in the 26-goal. “They would mount me, and in the second game I was hit behind the saddle and had a bad accident. I was out for about 30 seconds, dislocated my left thumb and broke my left collarbone. That ended my season early.”

Adam went home to his mother’s house in Cambridge and got a job as a busboy at the Border Café. “I didn’t know at the time that Garrick Steele was one of the owners of the Border Café. Maybe if I had I could have pulled a few strings and come in higher than a busboy!” Despite his cast, he convinced them he could do the job.

“I really credit Pieres with helping me a lot early on.” The next summer Brooke Johnston started playing, and Pieres sent up eight or 10 horses for Johnston and Snow to play. They played the 22-goal in Greenwich, Connecticut, and did well. Johnston asked Adam to join him in Florida the next winter. “We played with the same team and won one of the 22 goals and got to the final of the other one. I was playing all of Brook’s horses, and that was the beginning of a long relationship I had playing for Brook Johnston with C.S. Brooks. It was really a help for me because I was improving rapidly, and here was a sponsor who was helping mount me and a professional who had an infrastructure of good horses he was selling to Brook for me to play.”

He had been dating a girl, Shelley Onderdonk, who was two years behind him at Yale his senior year and the two years he had been playing professionally. “I decided it was time to get serious, so we got married June 3, 1989, about three days after she graduated.” His wife was accepted into the Yale China Fellowship to teach English and American cultural history in Hong Kong for two years. Adam decided to stop playing polo and to get a “real job” while Shelley taught in Hong Kong. “Before I went over, Brook Johnston, who runs a textile company said, ‘You know, we buy a lot of textiles from Asia. We don’t have anybody in Hong Kong. I’d like to keep you in the fold. Why don’t you work for me over there sourcing raw materials of textiles?’ I ... started going to the American Chamber of Commerce looking up words like gray goods, the cotton raw material, and trying to learn everything about the textiles industry. It was pretty challenging. ... I don’t think I initiated a transaction, but within two months, Brook called up and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to play in England next summer. I want you to come play with me.’ I said, ‘Shelley, we’ve got to do this.’ I had never played in England. Shelley said,
‘All right.’ ”

Based on his play the previous winter, Adam was raised from 6 to 7 goals. He traveled a lot, going to New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. He circled back to Hong Kong, and then England. The year after he was playing polo in Hong Kong.

“By the next year I was back playing professional polo,” Adam said. “I played January and February in Palm Beach and still played for Brook a lot. We moved back after Shelley [completed her fellowship].”

By about 1991 Shelley traveled the polo circuit with Adam for a year, and Owen and Georgina Rinehart convinced them to come look at property in Aiken. Owen needed a farm and wanted to develop a spring and fall training facility. “I got excited about it and hosted a meeting at our apartment in Florida and invited everybody we could think of that might be interested in it, like Mike Azzaro and Hector Galindo. We wanted to kind of develop a little Pilar in the United States. That was our dream. [Shelley and I] came up and decided we would buy a small piece. We couldn’t afford very much so we bought 24 acres initially. I decided if I was going to have a farm, maybe I should have a couple of horses. I was still playing with Brook, but if I was going to be one of the best players in the world, I’d have to have my own horses to have the independence to play with different teams.

Most people who play polo say they got started because they loved the horses. For Adam it was the competitiveness. Loving the horses came later. “I think it is a real skill to finish and maintain champion ponies. These are some of the things that I now love to do. I love the concept of finding horses, talking to their owners and working it out. When the horses win Best Playing Pony I always try to inform the [previous] owner. If there are POLO magazine pictures of them, I cut them out and send them. And they call me with the next horse.”

Today, Adam has developed his string into one of the best in the sport. His wife, Shelley, is a veterinarian helping him with the organization and maintenance of his string. She helped develop a feed for his horses and helped refine his horse program over the last few years. “Four or five years ago I probably had 40 horses. Now I have about 22. What I am trying to do is keep the numbers down and the quality up.”

Part of his success might be that he has an open mind when it comes to other equestrian sports. “I don’t think anyone can know everything about horses. I’ve enjoyed the influence of Shelley and her cross-country background. Then, friends like Lee and Melanie Taylor had me to their farm in Memphis last year to attend the Parelli Natural Horsemanship clinic, and Shelley and I went to a Parelli clinic in Florida last year. I soak up all the stuff and try to look for one or two things I can put into my own program.”

He also attributes at least part of his success to his consulting a sports psychologist.
Adam has had an incredible year. He won the 2001 Silver Cup and Texas Open and the 2002 Pacific Coast Open with Windsor Capital and won the biggest U.S. Open in history with Coca-Cola, his most memorable victory. Not only that, he took home Most Valuable Player honors and his horse Pumba won Best Playing Pony in the Open. He also aspires to win the British Gold Cup.

His rise to 10 goals was inevitable. He attributes his success to perseverance—working hard and enjoying it.
But with all the glory, he keeps things in perspective. He and Shelley have two young boys. Dillon, a second-grader and Nate, 5, are his main priority, and he enjoys time away from polo with them. “My family helps me. [When I am with them] it is like hitting the refresh button on my computer.”

Polo has given Adam more than just a career. “There are so many people associated with this sport, from every walk of life. It is sort of a wonderful melting pot. I always loved playing games since I was young and now I get to play a game for a career. When I get excited for a game, everything gets channeled into it. Leading up to it, I’m preparing for it, [thinking] which horses I’m riding, which bridle I’m changing. All these things have given my life focus. Early on, I felt excitement and butterflies and it was a real love/hate relationship of almost hoping that a game would get rained out. Now I appreciate those butterflies and the excitement because it makes me alive. It makes me vibrant and gives me the vitality of excitement, which is just an incredible feeling. When you are out there, and it’s blowing and you’re hitting the ball, scoring goals and riding horses it is what keeps you dancing the dance. It is fun!”

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