Sunny Hale just might be the most impressive, decorated athlete you've never heard of. She's been named player of the year seven times, has played in professional matches in a dozen countries and is the founder of a groundbreaking all-women's tournament. Some say she's pulled off the equivalent of being the first woman to earn a World Series ring.
You won't find Hale on a court, rink, track or slope. She's out in a field. With a horse. And a stick. Hale is a polo player. But not just any polo player, she's one of the very best there is -- male or female.
Hale, 42, of Palm Beach, Fla., has spent the last 20 years dominating the world polo scene. According to the Federation of International Polo, there are more than 16,200 registered players in 56 countries. Men and women compete side by side on co-ed teams and Hale is better than all the women and most of the men.
In 2000, Hale was the first woman on a winning U.S. Open Polo Championship team. The U.S. Open is the sport's most prestigious event and as the only woman on the field during that tournament, her presence marked a watershed moment for the future of women in the sport.
When Hale won the U.S. Open, she outranked 96 percent of all the players in the world, men included. The winning team also included Adolfo Cambiaso, the highest ranked player in the world, Lolo Castagnola and Phil Heatley, two more of the sport's heavyweights. "We went undefeated in the tournament," Hale said.
Hale became the first woman to achieve a 5-goal handicap rating. Polo players are rated on a scale of minus-2 to 10. This number reflects not the number of goals expected, but a player's overall value to their team. Two-thirds of U.S. players are rated a 2-goal or less handicapped, those of 5 or higher are usually professionals. While 10 is the best possible score, being the first woman to hit a rank of 5 is a huge achievement. "America currently has no 10-goal players and only a little more than a dozen players ranked in the seven, eight and nine categories combined," Hale said.
Accessible, funny and forthcoming, Hale is a natural competitor with long family roots in the sport. Her mother, Sue Sally Hale, broke the gender barrier when she played with the boys in a 1972 tournament. Before Sue Sally's breakthrough, women had not been recognized as rated players by the USPA, even though they had been playing for decades. Sue Sally set a precedent for her daughter, which Hale fully accepted. In fact, she surpassed her mother's expectations when she played her first tournament, which her team won, when she was just 10 years old. Needless to say, she's been hooked ever since. "If you have any athletic inclination and like horses, you're done for. Once you get connected to polo, you're addicted," Sunny Hale said.
Despite the sport's common perception as a stuffy pastime reserved for the wealthy, social elite, Hale insisted that's not the case. "Polo can be played at every financial level and there are ways to play polo a la carte, so to speak. For example, a person could take lessons ranging from $50 to $250 each at a local club without owning the equipment or a horse. You can rent a horse to play on the weekend. As a matter of fact, weekend, family style polo is the most common polo played in the U.S.," she said.
Peter Rizzo, executive director of the USPA, which lists more than 250 registered clubs from Hawaii to Maine, attests that polo not only welcomes all abilities and financial brackets, but is a sport of equal opportunity as well. It's one of the few sports where men and women are literally on the same playing field. "Women players represent the largest growing sector in polo today, and we're thrilled with the talent and enthusiasm they continue to bring to the sport here in the United States," Rizzo said.
Hale added, "[It's] a little like pitting Serena Williams against Andre Agassi. We're all ranked on the same system." And, under the system, players' individual handicaps are a far more important factor than gender.
Even swinging the mallet, which might look like it's all about sheer strength and force, is a much more nuanced skill. It's similar to swinging a golf club: brute strength will only get you so far, but proper technique will send you much further down the fairway.
Although female players are used to playing with men, there is an appetite in the sport for women's only tournaments and Hale is a big reason for that. In 2005, she established the Women's Championship Tournament (WCT), an international, world-class women's polo tournament series. There are currently more than 100 women participating and the tournament just finished its sixth season in April. The organization also gives female players a platform that highlights their accomplishments, so they can improve their rankings and gain playing opportunities.
Following her success with the WCT, Hale established the American Polo Horse Association (APHA) in 2006 to register and track the horses that contribute so much to the game. The APHA lets players learn about the horses they'll be working with before a tournament so they can be prepared for potential challenges before they jump into a match. Prior to founding the organization, there was "zero information available out there about these horses, their pedigree or their history," Hale said.