Hard Charger

Isabella Wolf aims to conquer the polo gender gap.

David Deal

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Polo is a man’s game, but not for long if teenage polo phenom Isabella Wolf has her way. She’s on track to become that rarest of polo players—a female professional.

Wolf grew up in Middleburg and took up the equine sport at age 9, and now the 18-year-old is a top-ranked amateur playing on both men’s and women’s teams. She is often described as “a young Sunny Hale,” after a “five-goal” player and one of the top women competitors in the sport. According to Alex Webbe, editor at large for polo’s Hurlingham magazine and a writer for Polo Times of England, Wolf is ranked a “one-goal” player on a scale that ranges from -2 goals (that’s negative two) to 10 goals. “Eighty percent of amateur players are rated at two goals or less. Anything above two, and you’re basically a professional,” Webbe says. “She’s playing way above her pay grade.”

Wolf joined the University of Virginia’s national champion women’s team this fall as a starter and took up the coveted #1 position. She plays at the front of the pack while other players feed her balls to get a score, explains UVA polo coach Louis Lopez. He recruited Wolf two years ago for his high school polo team. “She’s fearless and … very competent in her strokes,” he says, “and can hit while riding at speed.”

According to Wolf, the key to her development has been playing with boys. She has always trained with male coaches and played on men’s teams, and wasn’t introduced to women’s polo until 2007, when she joined Lopez’s interscholastic high school team in Charlottesville. Her trainer, Jose Villamiel, took her to Argentina to learn the “men’s game,” which is a rougher and faster version of the polo played in women’s leagues. “The [experience] taught me to hold my own on the field,” Wolf says. And that’s not always easy, as “polo is a contact sport.” Riders and horses alike bump and push each other to ensure a good shot. Wolf has had her share of injuries, including several concussions.

As a one-goal player, Wolf’s ambition is to turn pro while she’s in college. It’s legal under college polo rules, Lopez says, but rare. “She’s set a lofty goal for herself, but I think she has the ability.” Already she spends three to four hours a day, six days a week, on horseback. She owns a string of 16 polo ponies herself. To earn a living as a professional, she’ll have to live and breathe the sport, Lopez says. “It’s all-consuming.”

That suits this hard charger just fine. As Wolf says: “I plan to play until I can’t walk.”

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