By Lauren R. Giannini
The Oxford University Polo Club’s recipe for success is teamwork. Oxford scored a huge victory in the Metropolitan Intervarsity Tournament, also known as The London Challenge, a prestigious collegiate polo tournament of co-ed American and British teams — Harvard, Cornell, Skidmore, Cambridge and London — in July 2016 at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club near Beijing, China.
The Oxford University Polo Club (OUPC) wasn’t favored to win, but earned the title with distinction by playing without an official coach and being the only undefeated team. Oxford’s team included Lizzy Hamilton (reserve), Charlie Hitchman, Louis Maddison, Sally Schwartz and Heather Winsor.
“I can’t imagine a better place for me than Oxford — it’s the most magical place,” said American Sally Schwartz, who started playing polo three years ago under the tutelage of Julio Ezcurra at Mashomack Polo Club in Pine Plains, New York. Her passion for riding ignited at the age of 2 in Millbrook, New York, where she grew up doing a bit of everything, including eventing. Today, she mostly trains young horses, foxhunts, hacks out and plays polo as much as possible. She has played in Wellington, Florida, with Julio and in Los Angeles, California, with HYT Polo’s Hannah Taylor and Ernie Ezcurra. Playing for Oxford has taken her all over England and to China.
“It’s been kind of a golden age of the Oxford University Polo Club,” said Sally. “We had a record-breaking season  in what was the club’s most competitive year yet, especially in China with the inclusion of Cornell and Skidmore, instead of what was traditionally Yale and Stanford. Oxford was the only undefeated team — all the others had at least two losses. We weren’t one of the highest-handicapped teams, but everyone played fantastic and we beat Cornell for the title!”
Crossing the Big Puddle
Oxford, top-ranked university in the United Kingdom (UK) and one of the world’s top five, cites the U.S. as its largest source of international students. American Tommy Hitchcock (1882, Varsity) was one of Oxford’s first 10-goal players, but women have figured prominently in Oxford’s polo history. One of the things Sally loves most is that the Oxford team is fully coed.
“I ended up at Oxford by a bit of a miracle — I applied almost as an afterthought,” said Sally. “When the college counselor at my school told me I needed to apply to a broader list of schools, I threw in an application with UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, based in the UK). I knew almost nothing about Oxford at the time. Whatever set of unlikely circumstances led me here, I am grateful we found each other. There are some really experienced and talented players in OUPC from whom I have learned a lot and who have inspired me to play a lot and to improve. I now play first squad.”
In her third and final year of study, Sally graduates this spring from Oxford with a degree in history of art. She serves as the polo club’s external relations officer, handling social media, press and some special trips and events. This year, she’s also captain of Oxford’s equestrian team, which competes similarly to the U.S. intercollegiate system. At shows, riders on each team have a seven-minute warm-up for dressage and five-minute warm-up for show jumping — all on unknown horses. But polo’s her primary passion.
“Our polo team is incredibly close,” said Sally. “It’s a privilege to know, work hard and have fun with this talented, fun group of people.”
Oxford University Polo Club depends on its members to run the organization and take on various roles to keep it organized and moving forward. In the last few years, the students’ intense dedication to promoting polo has made OUPC grow by leaps and bounds. Elli Gilje and Lizzy Hamilton, previous club chairs, took Oxford from 30 members to 70. Lizzy initiated a vital tournament sponsorship with the renowned polo brand La Martina. The students are very serious about finding as much funding as possible as it allows the club to provide financial funding for any student who wants to play.
“We have increased our network and social media presence — it was at 300 at the beginning, and we’re hoping to get it to 10,000 by the time I leave,” said Sally. “The current committee, under the leadership of Issa Patel, took our club to 150 subscribed members with 100 trying polo for the first time this year.”
Getting hooked on the game has a lot to do with enthusiastic drive and determination. Issa Patel started playing several years ago under the tutelage of Glynn Henderson, former 5-goal international player from New Zealand based in the north of England, where his family lives.
“Glynn is the one who got me into the sport and I haven’t looked back since,” said Issa. “I found Oxford’s polo club to be a fun, close-knit community. Here I am, two years later, chairman of OUPC, and I’m so lucky I have had the chance to work on super-exciting projects with such an energetic and dedicated committee. We had our most successful season with triumphs in the Varsity Match, the Atlantic Cup [Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge], which we re-launched and hosted with Cambridge, and the Metropolitan Intervarsity Tournament in Tianjin. We also became a Full Blue Sport [special award for athletes playing at the highest level] for the first time in Oxford history.”
Teamwork, Teamwork, Teamwork
OUPC, founded in 1874 and one of the four oldest continuing polo clubs in the world, has a history of coed polo dating to the early 20th century. Women played chukkas and trained with the team, but the coed milestones took place when Claire (neé Lucas) Tomlinson played as “Mr. Lucas” in the 1964 Varsity Match and made history in 1966 when she became the first-ever female captain of OUPC. Claire made polo history as the first female player in the world to achieve a 5-goal handicap. At Oxford, the coed precedent is firmly established.
The fiercely contested Varsity Match between Oxford and Cambridge dates back to 1878. In 2016, the team of George Pearson, Vere Harmsworth, Charlie and Louis provided Oxford’s 19-0 annihilation of Cambridge, breaking the match record of 19-1, set in 1911. Winning the La Martina Varsity Match and the Atlantic Cup made for an extremely busy and exciting weekend and, no doubt, contributed greatly to OUPC earning that Full Blue Sport status.
It was in China for the 2016 Metropolitan Intervarsity Tournament that teamwork and self-coaching launched the Oxford team of men and women into the stratosphere of intercollegiate coed polo. There’s no more decisive way to win a championship than to play undefeated on foreign fields aboard unfamiliar horses. Although Oxford didn’t have an official coach, they received excellent support from the sidelines by teammate Christiaan de Koning and by top-rated players Charlie and Louis.
“I think our team is the best it’s ever been — it was fantastic,” said Sally. “In China, we had world-class horses, 26-goal horses, and we didn’t have a coach, like the other teams, but we had Christiaan with us and players like Charlie and Louis, who are often better than a coach because they’ll instruct you as you’re playing and they’re so specific about what you need to do and when to do it — that makes it a very steep learning curve. Plus, we’re accustomed to playing against the boys.”
Oxford’s strategy had Heather and Sally playing forward, to mark their men and take them out of the way, thus clearing the way for Charlie and Louis to get clear shots on goal. It worked. In the finals, Oxford bested Cornell, who was coached by David Eldridge, considered the best coach in all of Cornell’s history. According to Sally’s published report, Peter Elsner, London’s coach, told the Oxford team: “You played well, but God, you better thank your girls. They played outstanding — working hard clearing the way for you to make beautiful goals.”
Polo Before and Beyond
Winston Churchill, who often coached and played at Oxford, once said, “A polo handicap is a passport to the world.” The intense excitement of a team sport played at great speed on horseback makes it fun to participate and to watch. At Oxford, polo is a way of life that provides students with a home away from home, a substitute community/family and an immediate social life, to boot. It’s also a good reason to apply as an undergraduate.
Oxford has given Sally much more than a degree; here it gave her direction. “It’s been amazing, especially playing polo and competing on the equestrian team,” said Sally. “But as much as I love riding, I don’t want to become an equestrian professional. I like polo as a team sport and I love the adrenaline of it. Once I started playing polo, I couldn’t put it down.”
Heather, current OUPC social secretary who grew up riding, began playing polo at age 13. “I have always been animal obsessed, especially horses,” she said. “I always enjoyed riding and I was intrigued about combining it with team sport. When I found out my school offered polo, I jumped at the opportunity.”
That seems to be the common ground for most of the OUPC team. Sally, Heather and Issa, along with other teammates on the committee, have been working to improve alumni involvement by hosting more matches and dinners and reaching out to polo clubs who indicate their interest in having Oxford alumni play. They’re driven and determined to make sure Oxford’s the best university polo club in the world. They’re also keen to keep playing.
“I feel very proud to be an American, but I think I’m going to stay in London — many of my friends are there,” said Sally. “Art has always been a passion and a hobby and it’s been a delight to study, but I’m still young and I don’t feel I have enough foundation to go off on my own. Ideally, I would like to work with horses, breed polo ponies, have a farm and an art gallery. That’s the dream.”