Story by Elaine Anne Watt | Photos courtesy of Lou Lopez

When we think of polo, images of handsome horses and riders easily come to mind. We don’t often stop to think about polo’s impact from an economic, social or philanthropic point of view on our community and beyond. A closer look into the recent history of the University of Virginia’s (UVA) Virginia Polo programs might offer a new perspective on the people and places that benefit from this sport.

Virginia Polo is an independently funded club sport at UVA relying primarily on donations from alumni, polo organizations and other enthusiasts. All club, Junior Varsity and Varsity players are required to participate in the care, feeding, grooming and management of the horses and facilities through rotating assignments while undertaking their studies.

2017 UVA National Champs

2017 UVA National Champs

Situated on 75 acres and having as many as 60 donated horses at any given time, it is an incubator for novice polo players as well as seasoned riders. It also provides a second chance for “retiring” professional polo horses to continue to play, and for whom homes will be found after they have finished their time at Virginia Polo.

The stated mission of Virginia Polo is “to instill in each student the merits of responsibility, hard work, dedication, the rewards of fellowship, working as a team and the ability to compete in an intercollegiate sport on the national level. These are valuable lessons that endure in the students personal and professional lives after college.” In addition, the club offers opportunities for youth as young as 10, middle school and high school students to attend summer camps and play on the Virginia Juniors Teams, lessons and clinics extending to players throughout the mid-Atlantic region and league play at every skill level giving people from all walks of life an opportunity to experience the sport of polo.

“Polo is growing, with more women and kids than ever.” -Julia Steiner

Coach Lou Lopez has been at the helm of Virginia Polo for the last 14 years and takes great pride in the fact that anyone attending UVA can join the club program and learn to play. Many of these young students would never have the opportunity to do so anywhere else, and some have gone on to obtain great jobs or even seek a career in polo. Virginia Polo is now one of if not the largest polo clubs in the country and attracts top players from around the world and the United States, but it still looks to develop many local players from Charlottesville, Middleburg, Warrenton and Virginia Hunt country.

With great affection in his voice, Lopez spoke of the examples of Julia Steiner who operates Foxlease Polo Club in Upperville, Julia Smith who currently spends a good deal of her time working at The International Polo Club and playing in Middleburg and Wellington, Florida, and Isabella Wolf who can be seen in local Middleburg events and in Santa Barbara, California.

These three young women are pursuing equestrian careers, and all are involved in sharing their knowledge of the sport of polo with others. Steiner manages many youth tournaments and charitable events that benefit the Middleburg Humane Society. Lopez expressed the importance of “developing the whole person, and of creating lifetime relationships with his players,” inspiring them to use their gifts wisely.

Steiner spoke highly of her time as a member of the Virginia Polo teams. She felt that she met many of her best friends there and through competing at the intercollegiate level. She remembered many of the participants in the club teams had never played polo before, and that because of the generosity of others, they were able to experience the love of the game.

2011 Men's National championship team with UVA's President Sullivan.

2011 Men’s National championship team with UVA’s President Sullivan.

Costs at the collegiate level through Virginia Polo remain largely affordable, though continuing in the sport can be prohibitively expensive. That’s one of the reasons why having the chance to develop in such an exceptional program has been so important to these students. They have been able to be introduced into the equestrian world at large, allowing them to expand their networks and be mentored or sponsored as they’ve moved toward careers in the sport.

Steiner also is pleased that “polo is growing, with more women and kids than ever.” She currently splits her time between her family’s Foxlease Farm from April through October, and Wellington, Florida. In addition to playing at Great Meadow, the Gulfstream Polo Club, Grand Champions Polo Club and other events, she manages horses year-round both here and there.

Smith recalled that it was at “UVA where I grew up as a player, person and leader.” More than anywhere else in the country, she feels that the responsibilities required of participants in the polo program there “give you the confidence to make important decisions,” in all areas of your life.

Tyler and Austin Burdick spent three of their high school years and four years at UVA under the tutelage of Lopez. He remembered them as always together, sharing their studies, their chores and their passion for polo, often quiet and strong presences on and off the field.

The recent tragic loss of Austin Burdick is an example of how the polo community comes together in difficult times. Fundraisers and scholarships in Burdick’s honor will continue his legacy of good sportsmanship, academic and athletic success and of giving generously to others. When faced with adversity inside the polo community or within the wider circles in which they live, there is a strong tradition of players rallying together to offer their support.

Wolf emotionally spoke of how transient polo can be as a sport, so the friendships that formed as early as age 11 amongst the “kids” from the Middleburg area have sustained them as they travel around the country and when faced with the loss of Austin. She said, “we sometimes forget how incredibly fortunate we’ve been having grown up together in this amazingly beautiful area where there were so many opportunities to pursue any kind of horse sport.” Now, “we all want to make an effort to be a little bit closer, to pull together.”

Other members of past UVA Virginia Polo teams have continued to have an impact in our community and farther afield. In addition to revitalizing Rutledge Farm into a growing presence in the local polo scene from its origin as a thoroughbred breeding operation, Aleco Bravo-Greenberg, his late-step-father, mother and the late William Rickman have donated 872 acres to Montgomery County, Virginia, to create Woodstock Equestrian Park. Bravo-Greenberg is currently developing indoor and outdoor facilities to host competitive and club polo and riding events.

Another notable member of former national championship UVA teams is Derek Sifton of Toronto, Canada. Sifton has served on the board of directors for Virginia Polo and currently remains in an advisory capacity. An accomplished entrepreneur, Sifton continues as a leader of the Toronto Polo Club founded by his father and a major force in health care philanthropy through its Polo For Heart annual charity events that have raised over $5 million for medical facilities and equipment.

Coach Lou Lopez with UVA Polo Teams

Coach Lou Lopez with UVA Polo Teams

In commenting on his years at UVA, Sifton said he “feels strongly tied to Virginia and the many benefits he experienced while a student there.” He has tried to continue his father’s effort to fight polo’s lingering elitist image as the “Sport of Kings,” and he insists that there is a “lot more to it than getting on a horse … 20 percent is what you do on the horse, the rest is what you do off of it.”

Sifton loves that if someone wants to learn polo and can get on a horse, they have the opportunity to do so at Virginia. He has passed on his love of polo to his two sons who now share the family “addiction.”

We don’t have to look far to see the many ways that polo continues to shape our community and support local businesses and charities. The National Sporting Library & Museum, the Middleburg Humane Foundation, the Great Meadow Foundation and many others benefit from the healthy presence of this sport in our midst. And, thanks in part to Virginia Polo at UVA, the values and character that it instills and its connection to our area, we will continue to experience the everyday worth of polo. ML