Women’s arena competition has a recent history in the sport beginning with the creation of the Women’s Intercollegiate Championship in the late 1970s, followed by the Girls’ Interscholastic Championship in the early 1990s. Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, hosted the first USPA-sanctioned Women’s Arena Open in 1991. After a three-year stint however, the tournament fell into abeyance. With the exponential growth of women’s polo in recent years, the Association recognized the need for a national tournament celebrating the best of women’s arena competition.
“I never envisioned three years ago when I proposed this that it would come off as well as it did. The competition was great, the attitudes of all the players, win or lose, was fantastic. I am looking forward to next year.” – Lou Lopez, Virginia Polo Center General Manager and Coach
The addition of women’s outdoor handicaps sparked the concept of women’s arena handicaps, which allowed multiple teams to meet the required handicap level for an open tournament. The Virginia Polo Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, welcomed eight teams at two separate levels of play over the weekend to celebrate the reemergence of the Women’s Arena Open; this time as a national USPA title.
Following a narrow win over Hawaii Polo Life (HPL) in the semifinals, Bad Ass Polo (BAP) entered the arena with Posey Obrecht, Olivia Berube and the previous day’s Women’s Arena Handicap winner Maddie Grant. They were met by Ace Sportswear’s Anna Winslow* and Demitra Hajimihalis and joined by yet another previous day’s winner and Most Valuable Player Julia Smith*.
Rested and ready to win, Ace Sportswear came out hard in the first chukker, all three players landing on the scoreboard. Winslow started off the five-goal streak with a quick first goal, followed up by a two-point nearside goal from Smith. Taking advantage of an opportunity, Winslow successfully converted a Penalty 2 and Hajimihalis delivered the final goal of the chukker, resulting in a 5-0 lead. Determined to come back in the second, Grant rose to the challenge, answering with a Penalty 2 conversion and two additional goals for Bad Ass Polo. In a textbook defensive move, Smith took the man and bumped Berube wide leaving the goal mouth open for Winslow to score. “We tried to use our teammates effectively and communicate the whole way through,” Winslow revealed. “We tried to open it up, keep the ball moving and keep a good flow going. That’s what made the difference for us today.” Still maintaining a large margin, Ace Sportswear was leading 7-3 at halftime.
Increasing their lead still further in the third, Ace Sportswear’s strategic plays and consistent communication enabled Winslow to earn three consecutive goals for the team. “Effective communication is key, Hajimihalis remarked. “The second that we were a little bit quiet in the second chukker, BAP caught up to us. We came out better in the second half and communicated well.” Smith and Winslow combined for an impressive team play that resulted in another goal for Ace Sportswear. Despite valiant efforts, Bad Ass Polo’s attempts to score were denied at every turn. With only one period remaining, Bad Ass Polo needed to act fast, the scoreboard sitting at 11-3. Grant was able to secure a Penalty 2 conversion and a pony goal on Ace in the fourth; she was single-handedly responsible for all five of BAP’s goals. Smith’s final goal ended play with a final score 13-5, as Ace Sportswear celebrated their well-deserved tournament win.
“For me, it was so exciting to return to a high level of women’s arena polo. It has been ten years since I have played polo at the college level. It feels great and I had a fantastic time.” – Olivia Berube
As this weekend’s events came to a close, the demand which sparked the tournament’s resurfacing should be recognized as a monumental step forward for the sport in its entirety. Over the weekend six current USPA Intercollegiate/Interscholastic players competed in both levels of play. “This tournament prepared me in ways that I could not have even imagined for my upcoming college season,” said Hajimihalis. “Here at UVA, we are fortunate to have really strong women’s players, but playing with and against different players at different levels is just spectacular.”
The significance of the event was not lost on spectators. “I think women’s polo, but not really to separate it, it’s still polo, is the next step in the sport,” Rege Ludwig, notable polo instructor and father of Hawaii Polo Life player Kirsten Ludwig, commented. “What these ladies produced today is so much better than what it was ten years ago. It’s encouraging for the future, not just for ladies’ polo but for the entire sport. Because this represents polo. People tend to think of high-goal polo as the only type of polo and that’s not true, it is just one form of polo, as is stick and ball- it’s all the same between a horse and rider. That’s what polo really is, the satisfaction that each individual gets out of being associated with it in the manner that works for them. I think this is a tremendous form of polo that seems to be getting so much better.”
Julia Smith was named MVP for the second time during the tournament weekend. Best Playing Pony was awarded to Maddie Grant’s fourth chukker, 6-year-old chestnut gelding Ace, purchased from Lucas Criado.
*Anna Winslow and Julia Smith are members of Team USPA. Team USPA is a USPA program designed to enhance and grow the sport of polo in the United States by identifying young, talented American players and providing mentored training and playing opportunities leading to a pool of higher rated amateur and pro players and the resultant giveback to the sport of polo.