Sophomore from Jamestown establishes polo club at George Washington
His first lesson went like this: Patel sat in the saddle and his father’s longtime buddy, Tony Fonseca, told him to hold onto the handle. Then Fonseca gave the horse a whack on the rump.
“I was scared,” Patel admitted, “but it also kind of felt relaxing once you got into the rhythm.” He liked riding so much he started learning to play polo the same summer after high school.
Patel, 19 and now a college sophomore, has started a polo club at George Washington University and is playing in college competitions.
The club is now in its second year, with both a men and women’s team. The first year they just practiced and studied the rules. Then last fall, the men’s team played its first matches against other schools. So far, D.C.’s George Washington University has played two other teams.
The women are practicing, but they have not started competing yet. The men have already won a varsity match against the University of Pennsylvania and tied the University of Virginia’s club team. Patel feels the success is due to the fact his teammates are all experienced polo players.
This spring, the team will replay Penn and Virginia, and will also compete against Harvard, Yale and Virginia Tech. He also expects George Washington to take on Brown. “We’ve established communications,” he said. Dan Keating of the Newport Polo Club is Brown’s head coach.
Patel would like George Washington to recognize polo someday as a Division I sport, but the standing is tricky for polo. It would really be a matter of the school itself designating polo as a varsity sport since the U.S. Polo Association governs the sport, not the NCAA.
Patel, 19, played basketball for four years at North Kingstown High and enjoyed it.
“The program was great,” he said. “The coaches were great.” But an injury changed his prospects when he had to have surgery to repair a torn ACL. “It was pretty apparent I wasn’t going to play collegiately.”
He still plays hoops with friends, he said, but when he realized he didn’t have a real shot at making a college team, he took his father’s advice and looked for a new sport.
“My dad was pushing me to try something new,” he said. When Fonseca offered to introduce him to polo, they checked out a polo field in Bristol near Roger Williams University.
Patel liked what he saw – he found a new passion. “I developed a liking for horses and for taking care of them,” he said.
After the summer, he wanted to continue playing polo in college, he said, but George Washington didn’t have a team or polo club.
“I did my own research and found a coach,” he said. Dori Burner used to live in Rhode Island, and now lives in Virginia. After securing Burner as coach, he started recruiting players.
“I just started to advertise,” he said. Patel put up posters around school and spoke to fraternity friends. The news spread mostly by word of mouth, and six men, four women and two coaches signed up.
“I had to become an organization recognized by the school,” he said. To meet the requirements, he had to write a constitution and bylaws. He also put all the club information online, and ultimately kids looking for a polo team found them on the Internet. Then the group started traveling out to Burner’s place in Virginia for weekend practices.
Burner was coaching a high school polo team and had about a dozen polo ponies. She invested in the George Washington team and bought more horses, and is now up to about 28. She also found them an assistant coach, Matt Lattanze.
The players pay $400 for 11 lessons. For a college sport, Patel said, the price is reasonable. They also have to pay transportation, but they’re keeping that economical by purchasing Metrorail and Metrobus cards.
Polo teams don’t pay when they’re the visitors at a match, but they have to pick up the tab for a home game. The match against Penn cost the players three lessons. The coaches acted as the referees so they didn’t have to hire the officials.
Patel said if there is one thing he will do differently next year, it would be the budget. Last year, the club didn’t receive any funding from the school because it was a new organization. This year, the university kicked in $250.
Patel will make a “more indepth budget” for the upcoming season, he said. “We’ve been really progressing for the last couple of years. I have a vision where I want GW to establish its own polo facility. They have a campus near Georgetown where they have a lot of land. I want polo to be something that unifies GW. They want that young Ivy League look. Polo is a great way for them to come up to that standard.”
Patel said the polo facility would probably take years to bring to reality, but he is willing to stay committed after he graduates and anticipates the other polo players feel the same.
“They’re essentially the founding members as well,” he said. They come from all over the world, with Pakistan, South America and South Africa represented alongside San Diego, New York and Jamestown.