The Sport of Queens by Andrea Damewood
Nowadays, the sight of a woman charging down a polo pitch at breakneck speed, her legs thrown on each side of her pony as she flies after the ball is a gloriously common one—especially as female riders make up the fastest-growing segment in US Polo today.
In 1908? Not so much.
That didn’t stop Eleonora Randolph Sears of Boston. As sugar magnate John D. Spreckels built up the storied polo fields and stables on Coronado Island in the early 1900s, players from all over the United States and the world were drawn to the top notch play—including Miss Sears. The renowned athlete was among the glitterati who spent warm winters taking in tournaments near the Hotel del Coronado, according to research by the Coronado Historical Society.
Sears, a national tennis champion and early advocate for women in sports, visited Coronado annually from 1908 to 1917, and spent each trip advocating for women’s tournaments—an effect that is felt by the ever-growing ranks of female polo players more than 100 years later.
“Miss Sears, who has attracted considerable attention at the Hotel del Coronado during the recent tournament by her mannish riding costume and fearless riding is enthusiastic over the proposition” of women’s polo teams, the Union wrote in April 1909.
And while she was never successful in organizing an all-women’s event in Southern California, she did blaze trails by playing in a coed match in Coronado in March 1915, playing with two women on each side with a man deployed as defensive back. It marked her the first woman to play polo on a men’s team.
Her brash flaunting of gender norms guaranteed her enraptured newspaper coverage: Such as the fact Miss Sears rode astride instead of side saddle—and she did it wearing pants. “Mounted in costume Miss Eleonora Sears appeared on the polo fields of the Coronado Country Club yesterday afternoon and promptly became the center of interest,” the Tribune reported on February 19, 1915. “Dressed in polo boots and breeches, a great polo coat reaching to her boot tops and a large black slouch covering her hair, Miss Sears is with difficulty distinguished from the men polo players.”
And perhaps that was Miss Sears’ point all along, say the ladies who play the sport of kings today.
“Once you step in the arena, we become equal and only your merit and ability matters,” says Julie Empey, an arena player with a rating of one. “There is something beautiful about standing around a group of men that may normally intimidate me hearing them say that they are scared of me in the arena!”
Nicole DeBerg, a San Diego player, says the face of polo in America is changing. “Just like enrollment of women in colleges, the number of women playing polo is steadily increasing,” DeBerg says. “At the San Diego Polo Club for example, membership of women last year exceeded 40 percent.”
Along with the competition and constant challenge of growing as a player, Sue Landis says that she also has relished the opportunity to build vast networks across the globe through polo. Landis, a United Kingdom Women’s Open Polo and the Women’s World Polo Championship winner says that lifestyle element along with the sport is what keeps her coming back.
“As a woman, I love the family focus in polo – it’s great when my daughter can join me at a game, either behind the scenes, or at the après polo celebrations,” says Landis, who lives in San Diego and will play with the Hollywood Girls Polo Team this year.
Empey says the most intense games she has ever played were women’s tournaments. “I think when women go out and play, they are so used to giving it all—just trying to make it in a man’s world,” Empey says. “We are serious and we want to be taken seriously. We know if we work hard, we can be respected as an athlete.”
It’s a future that Miss Sears, who died in 1968 at age 86, would have been delighted to see. “What the suffrage leaders did for the political status of women, the Boston maid has done for women in the realm of sports, rescuing them from stupid age-old fetters of tradition,” a publication noted.
And despite the long way women polo players have come since the days Miss Sears played, current riders say they can’t wait to see what the coming decades hold.
“If the current trend continues, maybe someday the sport of the kings will also be referred to as the sport of the kings and queens,” says DeBerg, “As in my mind, any woman competing out there in a sport as tough and dangerous as polo, royalty or not, deserves the title.”