AMERICAN IDOLS
Future stars get to shine, learn
by Gwen Rizzo

As it becomes more evident that there are fewer American players coming up the ranks, the United States Polo Association is being proactive in preventing American players from eventually becoming extinct. Even at the highest levels of the sport, many of the best American players are approaching middle age. A new program being tried recently got off the ground, and though it may not be the absolute answer, it appears to be a great start.

Where are fewer Americans picking up mallets for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is the high cost associated with the sport. In order for a young person to get started in polo, they have to have access to at least one good horse. Once their skills have progressed enough that they are ready to play practices and then games, more horses become necessary. Aside from the cost of purchasing horses, there is the never-ending cost of the new string’s housing and upkeep. These costs can’t be avoided, even at the lowest levels of the sport. And the better polo you play, the more expensive it will be.

The best chance for a youngster to take up the sport is if their family members play. They usually have access to horses and a ready made trainer. But, interestingly enough, in many case the kids of polo players are electing not to play polo. I use my own kids as a case in point, and there are many others. Both my kids were attending polo matches just days after they were born, spent most of their early years on the side of a polo field and participated in the junior program when they were little. But my “little lefty” daughter never had much fun trying to lift that heavy mallet with her “other” hand and when she eventually discovered hunter jumpers, she never looked back. My son played for a few years but when none of his school friends had even seen a polo match before and weren’t the slightest bit interested, my son eventually decided hanging out with his friends was more fun than polo. And quite frankly, both kids had had their fill of polo by the time their age reached double digits.

Like my kids, even when kids from polo families participate in the junior program at a young age, they often lose interest by the time they reach their early teens. If kids from polo families don’t want to play the sport, what are the chances of attracting kids from non-polo families?

Fortunately, the USPA Interscholastic and Intercollegiate programs are a great place to introduce the sport to kids that may not have been exposed to it otherwise and also to those that perhaps are familiar with it but never got too involved. The I/I program currently has some 600 students participating in the sport. But, unless they are independently wealthy, where do these kids go once they get out of school?

The USPA established a Team USA concept to help bridge the gap for college- age kids to become involved in the sport as professional polo players or even as managers, horse trainers, or amateurs. The Team USA program identifies talented young American players and provides them with medium- and high-goal playing opportunities to learn from some of the best professional players in the game, competing alongside them and working with them to become more advanced polo players.

Former 10-goaler Owen Rinehart said, “I’d love to see some American kids come through. There is kind of a gap. For me, certainly, there is not nearly as many coming through as could.”

Others agree. “It is well recognized we have a shortage of higher-goal American players. The idea behind Team USA is to identify the best young American players and institute a program to give them opportunities they need to significantly increase their handicap,” explained Charles Smith, chairman of the Team USA Selection Committee. “One element that has been missing from American polo is the opportunity for young players to network nationally. By bringing the top talent together, bonds will be forged that will strengthen the polo in our country.”

After receiving 73 applications from young male and female players, age 19 to 25, from across the country, the selection committee chose 24 individuals to take part in the first training and evaluation event held in Wellington, Florida on February 13- 15. There was no cost to the participants for the three-day event and the USPA picked up travel expenses. Participants were mounted on horses leased for the event by the USPA.

The kids all took the weekend seriously, hoping to get the most out of the opportunity. Team USA coach Charlie Muldoon said, “I was impressed with the kids. There was not one there that we wanted to say, ‘Get this kid out of here.’ It showed we did our jobs well when we went through the nearly 80 applications.”

Most of the participants were anxious to come, but didn’t know what to expect. A record-breaking snow storm in the northeast just days before the event, and cold weather and heavy rain in South Florida threatened to cancel the activities but organizers forged ahead. With a small window to get a lot accomplished, International Polo Club accommodated the group with a nearly dry field for a series of hitting and riding evaluations. Professional players who volunteered their time during the event included Former 10-goalers Adam Snow and Owen Rinehart, 5-goal Joey Casey, 6-goal Kris Kampsen, 7-goalers Tommy Biddle, Luis Escobar, Jeff Hall, Jeff Blake and Hector Galindo, and 3-goal Sunny Hale.

Four-goal Nick Snow, who was one of the lucky ones selected to participate, said, “I was surprised by the amount of turnout from the high goal pros and sponsors. It was positive. Tommy Biddle was there and I’m playing with him now, so it was nice to meet him and break the ice. It was great to get to know all of them, like Hector [Galindo] and Jeff Blake. The pros were extremely helpful the whole time, giving honest opinions and really trying to help. They were interested in the kids and [dedicated] to help them improve and have a good experience.”

Former 10-goaler Adam Snow said, “The most enjoyable aspect of the Team USA Florida weekend for me was getting to know some of these kids. They are a great group and it was exciting to be a part of their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. Overall, I was very impressed with the intelligence and positive attitude of these kids.”

The following day participants were coached in three-on-three team play. Later in the day, the kids attended a seminar on human performance by sports psychologist Mark Brownlee. USPA professional umpire Dale Schwetz also gave a seminar on rules and rules interpretations. On Sunday, the kids were introduced during the featured game at International Polo Club’s stadium. “We all took great pride in seeing them introduced,” said Smith. The final day had the group divided into six teams for a series of round robin matches coached and evaluated by the professional players.

“I liked the build up from individual drills to small sided games to regular games,” said Nick Snow. “The guys may not pick up the same thing these pros pick up in two seconds. It is fun to see what they analyze.”

Muldoon said, “The kids got a lot out of it.Theprosgotalotoutofit.Wehaveanext generation and we have to help them. The pros, all of a sudden, see resources. Most kids are 2- and 3-goals on average. We saw with a little help, they were at the top of their handicaps.”

The kids were housed together in a local hotel, shared meals together, watched some great polo including the Outback 40-goal match and 26- goal tournament matches and had opportunities to meet some of the best players in the world. Other than a few hiccups, including when a car filled with participants was rear-ended and another rental van filled with participants had to be towed after it was hit by a person who ran a stop light, the weekend went very smoothly. The organization was in large part thanks to Kris Bowman, Team USA event organizer, who managed to keep track of all the kids, pros and activities. Bowman said, “We received a great response from professional players and sponsors in support of Team USA, which is what this program is about. Their support will make the difference.”

Many of the kids were happy to be able to get to know others like themselves so they can network. And meeting the professionals and getting pointers from them was nvaluable. “Even though it is still a work in- progress, the program can only be good in both tangible and intangible ways. One of the intangible benefits I have observed already is the way these kids are networking among each other and through organizer Kris Bowman about finding teams, jobs, etc. around the country. They now know all the American higher-goal players who helped that weekend, and feel free to contact us with queries and for advise,” said Adam Snow. “We know them and can have [these] kids on our radar as we put together teams for spring and summer months.”

Most of the professional players encouraged the kids to call on them for help. “It is good for kids to meet the pro players so they feel comfortable contacting them for advice,” explained Joey Casey. “I was impressed with the riding skills and overall attitudes of the kids. They all seemed to want to be there.”

Tommy Biddle agreed, saying, “Kids have already been emailing me, thanking me, asking for advice and networking for jobs. The networking will create more opportunities.”

Three-goal Mason Wroe said, “At the very least, I could say I was selected to Team USA. I can say to John Gobin, ‘I haven’t seen you in a while, but I saw you at Team USA tryouts.’ At the very least, it is a conversation starter.”

The participants, about half already rated 2-goals or more, got a chance to show their talents to the professionals and team sponsors who were invited to attend so, when it comes time to make teams, one of these young Americans may get a shot. Casey said, “The main thing is I got to see the kids, some I wouldn’t normally see, together in one spot. All of us were trying to assess which kids had the most talent and could be the next high goal Americans.”

Smith, a former 7-goal player himself, said, “This is a great opportunity for players and clubs throughout the country to help some of our finest young American players.”

USPA Chairman Tom Biddle said, “Team USA members are now aware of the opportunities never before available to young up-and-coming players. One of our goals is to ensure the program’s success in terms of elevating these young men and women’s playing ability as well as their knowledge of the game.” The idea is to place as many of the participants as possible in mentoring situations that will be monitored.

Rinehart said, “A lot of these kids have played only club polo and college polo. They havealottolearnandalongwaytogo.Alot of kids can get to 2- or 3-goals with raw talent but aren’t going to get much better without playing higher-goal polo.”

Wroe didn’t know what to expect when he was selected to participate but was happy to get the exposure. “We learned about networking, professionalism on and off the field, how to conduct yourself, the whole thing. Visiting with people like Charlie Muldoon, [I learned] there is a business aspect to the sport. You can’t just go out and play polo. That will only get you by for so long. Now we are all trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together and its going to take time but we’ll get there.” Wroe hopes the program gives him the opportunity to play the best polo he can so he can reach his highest potential, and allows young Americans coming up to be able to compete with the rest of the world.

The pros seem excited to be involved. Adam Snow said, “I like helping people who are driven and want to learn. I feel we owe this to the sport, and at the same time, it is personally rewarding when I observe progress and can take a little credit. Since my own kids don’t seem to be playing, I have lots of experience and teaching energy to impart to someone.”

Muldoon said, “The kids learned so much. We gave them a shortcut to learning, which would have taken some four or five years to learn. It will help them in the long run even if we don’t help them anymore, or if they absorb just a tenth of what was available. The momentum is there. We need to keep with it. If we stop the push, we will miss huge opportunities.”

So where do the participants go from here? Smith explained, “The USPA will help place several of the kids with high-goal mentors, and will help facilitate playing opportunities. The mentoring pairs will be based on the best fits to maximize improvement for the young players. That is, some will benefit most from an everyday relationship with a pro riding, stick and balling, learning stable management, etc. Others may benefit more from opportunities to play in higher-goal tournaments, or in different areas of the country. This will be an ongoing process for the rest of the year. Next year we plan to add more kids to the program.”

“If one of these kids goes to work for us, they can learn enough about horses to manage a barn, break horses, or find a job later. [They will learn] it is not always about glitz and glamour,” explained Tommy Biddle. “I told the kids I was really envious of them. We never had anything like this. It is awesome. The turnout from the American pros was fantastic. I can’t say a bad thing about any of the kids. They all performed well on strange horses and took instruction well. It was a great weekend and very promising for the future of American polo.”

Rinehart explained, “[Team USA] will help in small doses, but kids will help themselves as well. They will get out of it what they put into it. It is a good start and I’m happy the USPA is trying to help. Resources are the main thing, and are what is needed to get to the next level.”

The participants enjoyed meeting one another and the pros, and hope it opens doors for them in the future. More training events are planned. As this group gets opportunities, a new group can be brought in, and hopefully, that cycle will continue well into the future. With a strong program, the future of American polo can begin to brighten.

 
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