Polo Gives Alex Ebel His Wings
By Lauren R. Giannini
Alex Ebel was 5 when he discovered Ralph Lauren’s signature line of polo shirts. Made from the softest pima cotton, they felt good against his sensitive skin and became a mandatory element in his daily attire. Now 18, Alex still wears Ralph Lauren polo shirts.
They’re the reason why, two years ago, he decided he had to play polo. He didn’t know that learning to control a horse and swing a mallet at a ball would be monumentally life-changing, but that’s where and how Alex found confidence, comfort, strength and empowerment. Today, he’s funny, charming, gracious and outgoing — an inspiration to all.
“I think the biggest thing I have overcome is the ability to socialize in groups — I used to be very shy,” said Alex. “Polo has taught me how to be strong and how to stand up for others and how to stand up for myself. It has also taught me how to get through life’s obstacles that get thrown at your feet. I have what most kids may never have, and every day I am thankful for this life I was destined to live.”
Born in Russia, Alex was adopted by Suzanne and Bob Ebel of St. Louis, Missouri. While the Ebels were dealing with the paperwork, Suzanne learned that she was pregnant. When it came time to go to Russia, she was close to term and couldn’t accompany Bob, so he went alone.
Three weeks later, he brought home their 16-month-old son, severely malnourished from a stark diet of cabbage soup, no protein and no healthy fats. Alex, totally overwhelmed, clung to his new daddy, especially when they were met at the airport by the enthusiastic welcome of 50-some people, led by Suzanne and the eldest Ebel offspring, Audrianna, 3, clutching a red, white and blue bouquet of 12 balloons. About two weeks later, Nicholas was born. The three siblings bonded and grew up together. The family felt complete.
“Alex was in junior kindergarten, a very structured school, and his teacher suggested that we get him tested,” said Suzanne. “Alex was diagnosed with PDD (pervasive development delays) and later they added NOS (not otherwise specified). His immune system was weak and he was sick a lot until he was about 12. That’s when the doctors said that he was on the Asperger’s end of the autism spectrum.”
Alex had some issues, but he was charming, smart, talented and, in many ways, precocious. He read architectural magazines, produced detailed architectural drawings of European estates, and mastered CAD programming. By the same token, he felt uncomfortable in social situations. He liked order and routine. He was extremely sensitive to fabrics, preferring the softest cotton and short sleeves. His mother observed this phenomenon and bought Ralph Lauren shirts in bulk at the local outlet.
Because Alex didn’t like to sweat, he wasn’t into sports. Siblings Audrianna and Nick were gifted athletes, but Alex liked books, chess and his computer. Suzanne recalled being told by her mother, Gloria Harper, an early childhood specialist, that all intelligence is motor-based. She told Alex that he needed to pick an athletic activity. At almost 16, he was skinny with long legs, a weedy 80 pounds, standing about 5’6”. Today, he’s 6 feet tall and lean, and his “athletic activity” continues to develop tensile strength throughout his body and his mind.
“I will never forget the day he came down the stairs and said, ‘Mom, I need to play polo,’” said Suzanne. “I had told him that we needed to find something athletic for him to do, so his body would catch up with his brain a little bit, but where would that come from — after 14 years of refusing all things athletic? Alex said, ‘I wear polo, I should play polo.’ I said okay.”
The Ebels had attended charity polo matches, designed as family events complete with activities for children. Audrianna had a school friend, the daughter of Billy Busch (of the beer dynasty), who owned the Blue Herron Polo Club. A few hours after that fateful announcement to his mother, Alex spotted the polo patron in a local diner, marched up to him and said: “Excuse me, Mr. Busch, I want to play polo. Can you teach me?”
Billy suggested that Alex contact the St. Louis Polo Club and take lessons from pro trainer Scott Lancaster. Within a week, Alex had his first lesson and was hooked. “My first time on a horse, I was very excited and eager to learn — I wasn’t scared at all,” he recalled. “Scott gave me some basic instruction like how to position my toes in the stirrups, how to hold the reins and make a clicking sound to get the horse to move. Then he gave me a mallet and we rode to the ‘sand box’ as he called the arena. I was very focused. Scott was very patient and really good at making me feel like I could do this.”
Soon Alex was riding five times a week, working hard to master the principles of horsemanship, learning horse care, getting totally immersed in this new world and interacting with other teens who took lessons from Scott. In retrospect, it’s easy to say that Alex made a brilliant choice: Horses and polo did double duty as outstanding therapy, spiced with fun and excitement as well as physical and mental challenge.
“Alex started showing improvements in everything,” said Suzanne. “He had been awkward with his movements and mannerisms, but as soon as he started riding, everything started to improve. He walked better, he expressed himself more easily and his language usage improved immeasurably. His anxieties became more manageable, his social skills developed, and his confidence absolutely soared. Polo — the game, the team and the community, along with the speed, skill, sweat and focus — gave Alex more benefits than 15 years of therapeutic interventions. It has been nothing short of miraculous.”
In November 2013, a Fox News video of Alex playing grass polo shows a helmeted teenager looking totally at home on a horse, having a blast, mallet at the ready, galloping after the ball, focused on the play. “I learned to play in the arena when I was 15 and it was easier to learn the game in a smaller space, but now that I have played on full-length fields and on some really great grass, I prefer grass polo so much more — mostly because you can ride flat out,” explained Alex. “I ride in the arena when the fields are too wet for play and I still practice in the arena at Billy Busch’s field. I take lessons in the arena, because it’s a great place to work on riding skills, but oh my gosh, I like the full grass field so much better!”
In the beginning, Alex wasn’t crazy about the contact aspect of polo, but he was learning to ride and play at the same time and, as he pointed out, there was a lot for him to concentrate on. “Now I really love the speed, the contact and the competition,” he said. His equestrian education included several falls and, following Scott’s advice, he remounted each time. The worst was the spill he experienced in a ride-off against Umberto Sanchez at Spirit Valley (McGehee Polo Field, Chesterfield, Missouri). His account of the incident speaks volumes about his evolving character.
“I really didn’t know what an amazing player Umberto was — I just wanted to do my best and not let him get the play,” recalled Alex, currently rated B (-1) on grass by the USPA. “I was still pretty green, like an unmade pony. I was riding Lucky, one of Scott’s horses I leased for that match, and I threw myself over her neck. I was determined to keep playing so I got back on. I played several more times that week before giving in to the pain and finally getting an x-ray. I was in a cast for about six weeks. I felt pretty tough after I realized I played for a week with a broken wrist.”
Alex’s mentors include Billy Busch (“The first polo player I ever met, the nicest guy you’ll ever meet — really down to earth”); Scott Lancaster (“My first instructor, totally patient, great at explaining the game and making sure we knew how to take care of our horses. You can tell that Scott loves his horses, and he makes his students feel like a big family”); Steve Orthwein (senior), former 6-goaler, now playing at 2 goals (“The nicest person in the world, an amazing man — he gives me tips on perfecting the game and a thoughtful critique as we ride off the field between chukkers. I want to practice and someday have all the skills and knowledge he has. Right now, I board my horse Rio at his farm and play several times a week with him and his pros, JJ Celise and Ariel Loza.”)
Of course, what better role model than polo player Nacho Figueras, the iconic “face” of Ralph Lauren’s Black Label. “I wanted to be just like Nacho,” admitted Alex. “I thought it would be fun to be a polo model and ride horses wearing those great Ralph Lauren clothes. I know it sounds silly, but he just made it look so natural and amazing. Nacho is very down to earth and easy to talk to.”
The Ebel family will always remember Summer 2014 for its polo milestones: Alex received two awards and, thanks to the Orthweins, got to stick and ball with his idol. “Last winter my husband Steve and I received an email from Nacho, requesting to come to St. Louis because he wanted to meet the young man who had been featured in a Fox News special,” recounted Ginny Orthwein. “We helped to set the wheels in motion, and on September 12, Nacho and his son Hilario arrived in St. Louis to play in a benefit game for the Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital’s Danis Pediatric Center.”
Stevie Orthwein and his wife, Margaret, took Nacho and Hilario to visit the hospital and see the pediatric center in action. Afterward, they escorted the Figueras to Steve and Ginny’s home to ride the horses they would be playing on the next day in the benefit match, which raised $220,051 for the hospital, and to meet Alex.
“We did some stick and ball on the Orthweins’ field,” said Alex. “We talked about cars, horses and life in general. Nacho gave me tips on riding, how to get in position and how not to get discouraged when you miss the ball. He was just so very nice and natural. He really put me at ease as we practiced.”
That evening, Billy Busch and his family hosted a reception at their home. In front of about 150 polo enthusiasts, including Nacho and Hilario, Alex found himself honored with a special award, the Spirit of St. Louis, voted on by the St. Louis Polo Club members. On August 30, at the end-of-season party at the von Gontards’ farm, the St. Louis Polo Club had presented Alex with the 2014 Most Improved Player of the Year award.
This is a success story still being written, but it points out that there’s more to learn about the healing power of horses. Equine-related therapy takes many forms, but there’s no denying the thrill and magic associated with these magnificent animals. Some are helped into the saddle of a quiet equine and steadied by sidewalkers. For Alex, it was a quest to learn to control himself and a half-ton of galloping horse while playing a tough, contact team sport that involves hitting a small white ball with a mallet (easier said than done) and scoring goals.
“I love polo — the adrenaline rush I get from it is something I can’t even explain,” said Alex. “Hitting the sweet spot of the ball is the greatest feeling in the world. It puts a smile on my face. My parents have done so much for me, like letting me have a horse and play polo. I have worked hard. I am honest. I love to learn new things, and I have overcome a lot of things. I used to be very closed to sharing anything personal about myself. Ever since I started playing polo, I have been more open to expressing who I am and more open to showing people who I am through the game.”
According to Shakespeare, “… the apparel oft proclaims the man…” and Ralph Lauren polo shirts certainly played a pivotal role in Alex’s choice of athletic activity.
An Arabian proverb, however, goes directly to the heart of the matter: “Horses give us the wings we lack.” Alex accomplished more than learning to ride and to play polo — he learned to fly.
About the writer: Lauren R. Giannini is an award-winning journalist and photographer, specializing in stories about the equestrian world. Crazy about horses all her life, she combines her passion for reading and writing with her love for horses. She lives in the heart of Horse Country Virginia, watched over by her CEO (canine executive officer), a rescue who sums up perfectly the term “hybrid vigor.” Lauren’s pleasures and pastimes include foxhunting and steeplechasing — just about anything to do with horses.