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Bridging the gender divide
by Manjula Ramakrishnan January 11, 2019
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The Beach Polo Cup Dubai is one of the most prestigious and glamorous events in the UAE’s social events calendar, attracting polo professionals and enthusiasts from around the world. The just concluded 2018 event was the 9th edition. In September 2014, Beach Polo Cup Dubai received the official Patronage of Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of Dubai Sports Council Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and the 2018 tournament was held under his patronage. Dr Sabine Schaffer, the first woman player at the Beach Polo Cup Dubai, speaks to Panorama about beach polo and her participation in the event.

What is different about beach polo?
The Beach Polo Cup Dubai is a fantastic event for everyone and spectators get closer to the sporting action than is normally possible at a polo game. Compared to traditional polo, where we play using a ball slightly bigger than a tennis ball across a field almost double the size of a football field, beach polo is played on a smaller surface with a much bigger, red, inflatable, specially-designed ball. 

As the only female in the team would you consider you were at an advantage or disadvantage?
Like with a lot of other sports, polo started off as a sport played amongst men. So, I would not necessarily say that the sport offers equal opportunities for men and women as physically it is harder for a woman to compete with men. However, recently there is a growing number of women enjoying the sport and a number of ‘women only’ polo events have started to fill up the annual polo event calendar.

How did you develop an interest in Polo?
While I shared a passion for horses since a young age, my polo addiction started around 10 years ago when I was encouraged to try out a round of stick n ball. Fascinated by the experience, I soon fell victim to the unique sensation of mastering a pony, focusing on hitting the ball and playing a team sport strategically. I certainly learnt the hard way as playing with the guys is challenging. It was always dirty boots and sweat for me, but I would not want to change it for anything else in the world.

Tell us more about the recently concluded Beach Polo Cup Dubai tournament.
I played alongside my teammates Jan Bladen and Tomy Iriarte, who are both experienced players and for Team Lindt. We had two fantastic matches over the two-day tournament. The standard of polo was very high and although we didn’t win the trophy, I hope to be invited back to play in the 2019 tournament.

How do you manage your work and your passion for polo?
During my day-job in Dubai, I’m the managing director of Pro-invest, a boutique investment firm. In my spare time, I love to play polo and as with any profession, it is always hard to find time for any leisure activity. However, given that a lot of polo clubs arrange approximately two games during the week and another two on the weekend, it allows for everybody to find at least one or two opportunities a week to play. Also, the advantage of polo — compared to some other sports — is that a game of polo can be played within an hour or so and therefore, still leaves time to spend with family… although they often come along to the field anyway. 

Which would you rate as your toughest tournament so far and why?
It is hard to name just one tournament as each tends to have its own challenges — the differing quality of ponies or even the weather. I played polo in Thailand when it was raining heavily so it felt more like water polo. Other than physical differences, there are always mental pressures as well with a polo tournament. When you are out on the field and you realise the strength of your opponents; or as was the case with the Beach Polo Cup Dubai, I was the only female player, it was no longer about your individual performance but people look at you as the standard for how women play.  

Who are your inspiration and influences within the polo circuit and outside?

When looking at my inspirations for polo, the previous generation of female players laid the path for women in polo today. Players such as Sunny Hale, who was the first woman to win the US Open in 2000, still remains a big inspiration to me.

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