Sunny Hale is widely recognized among her peers as the most accomplished and well respected female polo player in the world. Her most famous victory is becoming the first woman in history to win the US Open Polo Championships as a professional player, hired by the Outback Steakhouse Polo Team at the request of the world’s #1 player of all time Adolfo Cambiaso - the equivalent of a woman being hired to play in the NBA Finals, World Series, or the Superbowl as a starter among the men… and winning the championship.
Sunny travels the world promoting the sport she loves in new tournaments for women and has written several books, including the newly released I Want To Be A Champion - A Champions Letter To Kids With A Dream. She tours the world sharing her message of inspiration through speaking opportunities and sat down recently with Elizabeth Goodwin Welborn, founder of Stick & Ball, to talk about polo, passion, and pursuing dreams.
Elizabeth: Sunny, at what age did you decide you wanted to become a champion in the sport of polo?
Sunny: At 19. I decided I wanted to become a professional polo player and pursue my dream in the sport. I didn’t share this goal or dream with anyone. In addition to playing professionally, I learned to trade horses and teach lessons to support and continue my passion of playing polo, which meant a lot of hard work, long hours, and taking steps toward my goal.
Elizabeth: In 2000, you were the first woman to play and win in the U.S. Open Polo Championships. At that time, you outranked 96 percent of the polo players in the world, including men. You are known as “the most influential person in women’s polo today.” What were the obstacles that you had to face personally to achieve becoming a champion of polo and how did you maintain your focus?
Sunny: I had many challenges along the way to where I was going in my personal dream, but I always believed that if I did the work I would get the invitations I was looking for. I had no template to follow for what I was after and no financial fortune to fall back on, so I had to work for everything.
When I started out, there were no other woman being paid to play professionally at the top of the sport and no woman had ever won the U.S. Open Polo Championship, nor were they even considered for options as teammates… unless they could afford to own the team.
The obstacles were plenty, but I stayed true to myself and my dream. I was willing to put in the hard work to make it happen and to stand up for myself on the field with solid performances. I was disciplined and worked hard and stayed away from drinking or drugs.
I also knew that in order to earn respect as a professional player, I would have to stand up for myself both on the field and off the field in learning how to negotiate my own playing deals with the team owners or managers.
The U.S. Open is America’s most prestigious and coveted tournament and title for professional players in the United States. When I had my first chance to play, I was offered a spot on a team with no pay. This was a huge honor to be asked to try out and I was truly excited to get the opportunity, but I knew this would set a precedent for me professionally if I did it for free.
As much as I wanted the chance to play, I had to say “No thank you, but I am unable to do it for free” (after the try out went spectacular with the team wanting me to play).
Fortunately, standing up for myself with class and appreciation for the chance to try out paid off and they came back with a spot on the team and the compensation for playing that I asked for. I was so happy it worked out and that tournament opened the door to many more invitations at the top and eventually the invite to the US Open winning team.
One of the hardest obstacles to overcome when I was young, which was truly the longest lasting obstacle, was the pressure that people had for a young girl my age and the constant comments and opinions that I should be doing what everyone else my age was doing. This came from all sources including family members at the time. That was the one obstacle that stuck in my head for years, but I followed my dream anyway and am so happy I did not let that stop me.
I have learned along the way that each person is unique and it is most important to live as you were created to be. Everyone is here to do something and to lose that opportunity is to waste a life logging hours for someone else’s opinion of you. This was my biggest obstacle and I overcame it.
Elizabeth: Having founded the Women’s Championship Tournament, actively promoting and developing women’s polo in the Unites States and around the world, you have become a role model for other female polo players, young and old! Share with us how the landscape for women in polo changed from the last century and since 2000?
Sunny: It wasn’t until 1972 that the U.S. Polo Association allowed women to become player members. My mom lobbied the association for 20 years in order to make this happen. Before that, women were not even allowed to play in a U.S. Polo Association sanctioned game.
In my own pursuit of playing professional polo, I began to see a shift with people taking me seriously as a professional player without considering my gender. In 2005, I started an international women’s polo league called the Women’s Championship Tournament (WCT) for top female polo players to compete with the purpose of fostering new friendships, enjoying good polo, and sharing their passion for the sport.
The sport is so amazing and addictive and enjoyable from playing as well as meeting so many new people. I was inspired and wanted to foster more of this around the world for women.
A shift is now taking place around the world for women in the sport as women now represent one of the largest growing sectors getting into the sport worldwide. That is a huge change and literally a movement and moment in time.
I flew to Dubai to participate in the first UAE Ladies Polo Tournament that was held in 2013 at Desert Palm in Dubai. This was an incredible big step in the Middle East in so many ways as the royal family is who supported its inception. This last July, Adolfo Cambiaso called me to come to play with his daughter, Mia and the two daughters of his Argentine Open coach Milo Araujo in the Argentine Women’s Open. We went undefeated and won the finals against the country’s top women players, all adults.
To see the number 1 polo player in the world backing his daughter and women’s polo speaks volumes as to how much of a change has taken place for women in polo today. Women now have so much opportunity and, with the right attitude, there are no obstacles to achieving a dream for a young girl today.
Elizabeth: Your mom, Sue Sally Hale, and Clare Tomlinson of England, both competed as a polo players in the ‘60s disguised as men. Did you ever have to feel like you needed to disguise your own personality or femininity on your way to becoming a professional in a male dominated sport?
Sunny: I never had to or tried to hide my femininity. I was always a polo player and sportsman first and always acted like a lady and never a beast, as some will do when things heat up. My trademark was to always remain a woman before, during, and after the game no matter what. I relied on my talent and hard work to speak for me, not my gender.
Elizabeth: How do you think polo is different from other professional sports?
Sunny: I believe the foundation of polo as a team sport resonates with everyone, but polo does have some really unique factors for a traveling professional player. For example, I once had a speaking opportunity to top execs of Walmart. They were asking me about the challenges of competition.
I explained that as a professional polo player, you are traveling the world and very often have little time before competing to pull your team together. You are playing on horses you have never ridden or seen before until game time, with people you have never played with and in a new environment. With limited time, you need to figure out how to get your team together and line out your horses to their best strengths over the duration of the game. You need to understand everyone’s best points and strengths and get the job done. You need to know your goals individually and as a team and communicate where it is you want to go with precision to hit your mark.
Unlike other sports where you stay together as a team for a season and have time to get to know each other and professional coaching to pull it all together, polo can be quite different in those aspects. This unique skill set of a good player applies to polo, to other sports, and to so many things in life.
Elizabeth: To date, what single moment or title are you most proud of achieving and why?
Sunny: For me there are so many that I am proud of it’s hard to pick just one! The US Open win was truly spectacular as it was exactly as I had envisioned in my personal dream as a kid… where the number one player of all time, Adolfo Cambiaso, is the one who asked the sponsor to hire me for the spot on the team. That has to be one of the greatest moments ever, for they could have chosen any guy in the entire world to be brought in. I have since played with Adolfo several times and each time it’s like one more reminder of how possible the impossible dreams really are if you are willing to work for them.
I would also have to say one of the details I am most proud of is that I stayed true to myself and did it exactly the way I had wanted to do it with perfection to the intent and that meant, I earned the spots and left the field with their respect as a player, as one of them.
Elizabeth: I Want To Be A Champion is your third book, coined as A Champion’s Letter to a Kid with Dreams. Can you tell us what motivated you to write this book?
I wanted to write a clear message to let kids know that if they have a dream or goal inside them, that it is possible! What is life without pursuing your passions? When I wrote this, it was for a mainstream audience to truly provide some clues and facts on what to do if you think you have a dream or big goal inside of you.
I thought it would be really helpful to let kids know that their dreams are possible and to give them some helpful tips that I learned along the way to achieving my dream, that could help them achieve their dream. If a kid is feeling these things we need support them and let them know they can do it, if they are willing to do the work and stay away from drugs and alcohol.
This was fun to write and the responses from kids and parents has been absolutely fantastic, as I don’t know of any other book like it out there with this kind of positive message that is easy to read with no fluff, just the facts.
I learned a lot in publishing this book. Each book published has an ISBN Number which categorizes the type of subject matter in the book. I wanted this book to be categorized as a “Positive Message” or “Inspirational Message for Kids.” I thought that would be pretty easy topic to find and obvious.
Then I found out the bad news…this category doesn’t exist! Say what??? There are “Self Help” and “Psychology for Kids” categories (plenty of them) or fiction stories, but no positive message category at all anywhere. I had to settle on “Juvenile Non Fiction” and "adventure, adventurer.” I think this is ridiculous and maybe we can find someone who knows someone who can help get the ball rolling, so kids can have a huge category of good and positive messaging to learn from in the future to help them along with what works.
I found out after this experience from a team mate of mine’s mother, Lillian Too, who is a leading author on Feng Shui and has sold over 6 million copies of her books, that there was no “Feng Shui” category when she first began publishing. Thanks to her efforts and others they have their own entire category now. I see we have some work to do, maybe this book can get things started in the right direction!
Images from top: Sunny Hale in the Royal Malaysian Ladies Championships WCT qualifier; Sunny Hale playing for Outback Steakhouse against White Birch in the U.S. Open; WCT Finals Champions Goose Creek Polo Team; Sunny in ride off with Bud Light Polo Team member in the U.S. Open; Sunny Hale on the Maple Leaf Polo Team (image by Dominic James).