MY WAY: Sunny Hale lived her life on her terms

Sunny Hale, 48, died suddenly due to complications from breast cancer at Norman Regional Hospital in Norman, Oklahoma on February 26. She leaves behind a legacy in the polo organizations she created and as an inspiration to women and young girls around the world.

The fourth of five children of polo pioneer Sue Sally Hale and Alexander Hale, Sunny grew up around horses and polo in Carmel, California. She was riding before she could walk and by 3 or 4 years old was showing her pony Pistol Pete. Her parents divorced when she was young and she and her siblings helped run the family’s horse business.

Aside from horse showing she tried eventing but polo soon became her passion. She played her first tournament, substituting for another player when she was just 10. A few years later she started giving riding lessons. She put in a lot of hard work and dedication even at a young age, including traveling, practicing and regularly competing as a teen. By 19, she began playing professionally. Her dream from an early age was to earn her way through her talent to play with the best players in the world.

As she explained in numerous interviews, she did not come from a lot of money and had to work for everything. There was no template she could use for professional women players in the sport so she had to navigate her way through the male-dominated sport, negotiate her own deals and stand up for herself. She encountered a lot of naysayers along the way who questioned her and told her she was not going to fulfill her dreams. But, she didn’t listen to anyone who didn’t believe in her.

She went on to play at all levels of the sport with and against the best male professionals in the world. She is one of only two women worldwide to reach a 5- goal handicap.

She once recalled a time when she was asked to try out for a spot on a high-goal team led by then 10-goal legend Carlos Gracida, who was organizing the team. The tryouts went great and she fit in well with the team, but she said she was asked to play for free. Feeling it would set a bad precedent, she respectfully declined the offer saying she was unable to play without being compensated. The team owner, eager to play with her and being pressured by Gracida, reconsidered and offered to pay her asking price. This paved the way for paid professional women players.

When Gracida died in 2014, Hale remembered the opportunity and said she would be forever grateful to him. Playing in that tournament, she said, led to a lot of playing invitations, including the one from Tim Gannon’s Outback team, led by 10-goaler Adolfo Cambiaso, in the 2000 U.S. Open. The team ended up winning the tournament and Hale became the first female to win the tournament.

She went on to amass victories in the 26-goal CV Whitney Cup with Lechuza Caracas; the 22-goal Hall of Fame Cup with Outback Steakhouse; the 22-goal Ylvisaker Cup with La Dolfina/New Bridge where she won MVP in the final; the 22-goal Sterling Cup with Calumet; the 20-goal Robert Skene tournament with Goshen, where she was voted MVP; the 20-goal Bondell Cup with Audi; the 20-goal Texas Open with Bob Moore Cadillac, where she earned MVP in the final; the 16-goal International Cup with Sympatico; and Palm Beach Polo’s 14-goal league.

Her list of wins in women’s polo is even longer. She is seven-time winner of Polo magazine’s Woman Player of the Year; she won the U.S. Women’s Open three times; the WCT final six times; the First Royal Malaysian Ladies Championship in 2012; USA vs. Argentina in Argentina; ICWI International Ladies Tournament in Jamaica; the Argentine Women’s Open in 1999 and 2015; Thai Polo Queen’s Cup in 2012; the Dubai International Ladies tournament; and twice winner of the National Sporting Library Supermatch. Her MVP awards are too numerous to count.

In 2005, she founded the Women’s Champion Tournament series to unite the best women’s polo and female players around the world with one mission: new friendships, good polo and shared passion. The WCT encourages clubs to hold qualifier events throughout the year. Participation in a qualifier automatically qualifies individuals to play in the WCT final held in Wellington, Florida each April.

Participants are required to be USPA members, which helped increase female membership, now the fastest growing segment of the sport. Today, woman account for some 40 percent of USPA members. The WCT now includes both outdoor and arena championships, as well as junior events. The increased participation also helped increase the level of polo being played. Through the WCT, Hale provided more opportunities for paid professional women players.

Never one to remain still, in 2006, Hale founded the American Polo Horse Association, a polo breed registry to track statistics, breeding records and awards. At the time, Hale said it was important to recognize the equine side of polo and have a place to find verifiable information on polo horses, one of the greatest animals ever created. For a long time, Hale bred and trained many of her own horses. She had an excellent eye for horses and surpassed most players—male and female—in her riding and training abilities.

The APHA gave annual awards for Best Polo String in Wellington’s competitive high-goal season. Hale also went out of her way to recognize polo grooms who dedicated their time to caring for the sport’s equine athletes.

In an effort to encourage events to showcase polo horses, Hale launched a National Polo Pony Show, held in Florida in 2010 and 2011. It offered a platform for polo pony owners and breeders to showcase their animals.

Today, the American Polo Horse Association reaches over 11,000 Facebook fans, 1500 twitter followers and 600 instagram followers.

In 2012, Hale was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame for her polo accomplishments. At the time, Adolfo Cambaiso said, “First of all, a great person and great friend. And she is the best woman that I ever see play. I pick her when she was 4 goals to play the U.S. Open instead of any other player around. And I won the U.S. Open with her.”

Actor and player Tommy Lee Jones added, “Rides well. Thinks well on the polo field. That’s just about all high-goal players look for in a teammate. It has nothing to do with gender. She’s just a good polo player.”

Hale has been featured in numerous mainstream media outlets, including Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, ESPNW, The National UAE, Sport360.com, The Horse Times Egypt, The Palm Beach Post, and Equitrekking.com.

When reporters asked what were the best parts of her career, she said it was the relationships she built with great horses, the camaraderie with her teammates and seeing the world playing polo.

Over the past few years, Hale has been traveling to play women’s tournaments and promote women’s polo internationally. She has played polo in 11 countries throughout the world including, Argentina, Dubai, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Switzerland and Mexico. She has also been a motivational speaker for polo players as well as corporations.

Additionally, she authored five books: a three-volume series with “Let’s Talk Polo,” “Let’s Talk About your Handicap,” and “Let’s Talk Polo Ponies;” “I Want To Be A Champion,” a book for mainstream kids to inspire them to follow their dreams; and “How to Gain Confidence as a Rider: A Champion’s guide to understanding and overcoming your fears.” This year, she was due to release her personal story of achieving the impossible in the Sport of Kings with “Conquering the Dream: one woman, one dream ... the impossible.”

In 2012, as chairman of the USPA’s Women’s Polo Committee, Hale helped develop a separate women’s handicap system for use in women’s-only polo. The idea was to implement a women’s handicap, similar to what Argentina had done, giving recognition worldwide for the dominance and strength in its female players and the growth in popularity women’s polo was experiencing. She also assisted the polo association in France to unveil a similar system for its women players.

At the time, Hale explained, “Deciding to go ahead with [a women’s rating system] was due to the fact that I had the ability through the WCT to provide the opportunity for women, who may never otherwise move up in handicap their entire career because of a compression issue across the board, to be able to achieve a 0-10 rating among their female peers worldwide. What an opportunity to walk away from if I did nothing.”

While playing in Dubai in 2014, Hale told The National writer Selina Denman, “The landscape of our sport has changed. The doors are now open for women to go and participate, especially if they are talented and willing to work at it. We need more tournaments like this—a congregation of international girls getting together and pooling that energy and passion, because that’s what really promotes the sport of polo.”

Hale’s message to others has been that the greatest gifts come from within ... it is up to you to find them. Hale did just that, dismissing anyone who didn’t believe in her. She shared that message whenever possible throughout the polo community and with a wider audience through her books and speaking engagements.

She truly changed polo for women worldwide, earning respect as an accomplished horseman and professional player among males and females. She certainly realized her dream earning chances to play with the best players in the world based solely on her talent and professionalism.

In numerous conversations with her, she never had a bad word to say about anyone. She never got involved in the politics of the sport and always wanted to talk about the next cool thing she had thought up. If someone was complaining about something, she would laugh and change the subject to something positive. Most players will tell you she was a pleasure to play with and against, and always showed good sportsmanship regardless if she won or lost.

Her sister Stormie wrote, “She had a great appreciation for what each day could and did bring. She was determined not to be defined by anyone other than herself and she bravely followed her passion for the game.”

Her website says: Passion lives in the pursuit. Do it. Mean it. Enjoy the journey. These were words she lived by. Hale lived her life on her terms, always with a smile on her face. She truly seemed to enjoy her journey.

Hale is survived by her father Alexander Hale; sisters Stormie and Dawn; and brother Trails, all from California. She was predeceased by her mother Sue Sally Hale and brother Brook.

By Gwen Rizzo

 

 

 

 
 
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