Sunny Hale wants this much to be clear: She has no interest in
ridiculing male colleagues or in proving some point about gender
bias. It just happens that the sport she loves is polo, the
upper ranks of which throb with some of the world's most macho
athletes. And it happens that Hale is the top-ranked U.S. female
polo player, one of only a handful of women who successfully
compete in elite international tournaments. "My aspiration has
always been to be accepted by the upper-level players," says
Hale, 28. "Accepted because of my playing. Not because they
wanted the oddity of having a girl on their team."
In her decade as a pro, she has won the respect of polo's best.
"Sunny is the strongest three-goal player in the United States,"
says Memo Gracida, the Mexican star who is one of 11 players
worldwide with a 10-goal ranking, the highest possible. "Her
playing is very aggressive. She's always very cool, very
controlled. She was born on the saddle."
That's almost literally true. Sunny's mother, Sue Sally Hale,
was a pioneer woman polo player. She competed during the 1950s
and '60s disguised as a man. "I pushed my long hair under a hat
and wore a large shirt," recalls the senior Hale, who still
plays polo at 60. "I never spoke a word. Only the guys on my
team knew I was a girl." Sue Sally, a single parent, struggled
financially on her Carmel, Calif., ranch, where she trained
horses and taught riding with the help of Sunny and her four
Sunny, whose given name is Sunset, learned to ride before she
could walk. "I used to put my coloring books on top of my pony
and color the way some kids will go to a corner and color," she
says. By 15 she was playing polo regularly, and three years
later she turned professional, finishing high school in a
home-study program. She has played matches in France, Jamaica,
England and Hawaii. And she has been picked for teams, which
have four members, in high-goal tournaments at Palm Beach Polo
Golf and Country Club in Wellington, Fla., where Gracida and
other prestige players, mostly from Latin America, converge each
winter. Hale lives there during the polo season with her
longtime boyfriend, Ted Moore, who is a four-goal player.
Last year Hale became the first U.S. woman to achieve a
four-goal ranking. But in polo, work comes more readily to
players whose abilities exceed their ranking. That's especially
true for a woman. And so Hale campaigned successfully to drop
back to three-goal status.
"There's a lot of back patting and 'Hey, buddy' stuff in this
sport," observes Kris Bowman, co-owner of Polo Vacations of
Wellington, one of three private schools that teach polo and are
operated by women. "A woman has to be twice as good as a man to
get a job. There's no doubt about that. You have the Latin
influence and attitude toward women."
Even the U.S. Polo Association, the sport's governing body here,
seems somewhat dismissive of women in high-goal play. "There
just aren't many gals in a position to compete at that level,"
says George Alexander Jr., the association's executive director.
"To those who are, more power to them. Sunny Hale has played on
the best polo teams in the country, at the highest levels. She's
a hell of a good little polo player."
Hale has endured more than her share of resistance. "I've had
guys say they're going to run me over, going to kill me," she
says. "I've been called every word in the bad-word dictionary.
I'm in a sport where it's more common for men to be good than
for women. So I'm going to take some criticism. And I'm willing
to take that. I'm more interested in playing a good game than
reacting angrily to someone who's just being chauvinistic."
Despite polo's difficulties and dangers, Hale intends to rise as
high in the sport as her ability allows and to stop competing
seriously only when she peaks as a performer.
"Every athlete hopes to quit when he is at the top," Hale says.
"Or when she is."
Bob Knotts is a Florida-based writer who loves objects that go
fast, especially cars and horses.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LOMINSKA Hale's aggressiveness has impressed even the Latin male stars. [Sunny Hale playing polo]