Wakefield 8th grader Wil Ballhaus is 14. He is deeply engaged in the sport of his choice--as many 14-year-olds are. However, most 14-year-old athletes, even very accomplished ones, play their sport against other kids. Few--if any--enter directly into the adult arena of professional competition. But Wil is the exception to many rules, for which the unusual spelling of his first name is only the barest introduction.
Though Wil says he is working hard at learning squash, his true sports calling is the rare air of polo, an equestrian sport that, although wildly popular in other parts of the world, has only three major hotspots in the US, according to Wil: Florida, Santa Barbara, California, and Piedmont Virginia. As part of a concerted effort to unify Virginia polo, “a ton of other neighboring polo clubs” within about a 30-mile radius of Wil’s home in Middleburg, Virginia, joined together this past year to form the Virginia United Polo League.
In this entire Virginia league, there is one other non-adult, a 16-year-old teammate of Wil’s named Katherine. Beyond the two of them, Virginia polo is played exclusively by adults--and adults from all over the world. Even in this milieu, though, Wil stood out this year and gained recognition.
The new league sponsored multiple tournaments this past summer, two of which were sponsored by the sport’s national organizing body, the United States Polo Association, or USPA. In the USPA National 8-Goal Finals held in Virginia in August, Wil’s team, known as “Beverly” after Wil’s family’s brand and farm, Beverly Equestrian, consisted of Wil, his dad, Bill Ballhaus, his coach, Tolito Ocampo, and Hilario Figueras, the son of Argentinian polo legend “Nacho” Figueras. Beverly took the title--and Wil, all 14 years of him, was named the MVP of the finals. “I was a little bit happy about that!” says Wil.
And if the story could become even more fantastical--Wil has been playing polo for less than four years.
If the pandemic can be said to possess any silver linings, one of them for Wil is that Wakefield’s shift to distance learning last spring, and its willingness and ability to offer a distance learning option to individual students as needed this fall, has enabled him to pursue both his Wakefield education and his polo education in Florida simultaneously from January to April. This winter, Wil will be based in Palm Beach, Florida. He will be travelling down with his dad, his coach, and 23 Beverly polo ponies, to spend the season learning from and playing with the best.
“I’ll be trying to balance online school, squash (I’m really trying to get good at squash!), as well as polo. Every day I’ll be doing all three of those things,” says Wil. “It’s going to be difficult, but I’m going down there to get that boost in polo that I need that will really pick me up. I’ll be playing with prodigies, legends, and I’ll be getting coaching from my coach every single day.”
Wil is quick to point out that one of his main connections to polo is the horses themselves, whom he dearly loves. The first horse he ever rode, Lechuga, is still one of the six Beverly polo ponies that Wil rides in competition--and his favorite. His fondness for all horses comes through in his description of his mounts. “We know them,” he says. “I have six [that I ride] now: Lechuga, Espriana, Aruba, Moncada, Lady D, and sometimes Princessa. All of them are very small...they’re very teeny, very cute little horses! They’re very lean--very muscle-y and compact.” Wil says that when he was learning to ride, at 10 years old, Lechuga “was very easy with me.”
Because polo is a sport with a relatively narrow reach even for audiences, let alone for those who actually play it, I asked Wil if the emergence of fresh young talent was a cause for some excitement in the larger polo community.
In Virginia, he said--“one of the most ‘pony’ parts of the country”--it generates more interest than in other parts of the US. “When new younger kids get into polo [in Virginia], it is always super exciting. In Argentina, kids are playing polo way younger than I am, six or seven years old. Polo I think is about to get bigger and bigger. With polo, I think what brings a lot of audiences, even people who don’t know anything about horses, don’t know anything about polo, don’t know any of the players, they still come to it--to be social, but also to see horses just flying across the field. It’s exciting.”
I also asked Wil what qualities he felt made for a great polo player.
“Firstly, you can’t give up,” says Wil. “Polo is really difficult and can be dangerous at times, but no matter what you can’t give up. Even when you get scared or get mad that you aren’t getting better, you can’t let yourself stop and need to keep on pushing. Secondly, I think a good polo player needs to be respectful. Respectful of himself, teammates, opponents, grooms (the people who manage the horses), and the horses. They need to understand that this is a team sport, and the team is more than just the players on the field. Lastly, a good polo player needs to be able to accept guidance and keep their cool. These are two things that I am still trying to get better at. You can always improve, so when someone better than you gives you pointers, listen, and try your best to implement them.” Wise words from a 14-year-old!
Finally, I asked Wil how he saw polo fitting into the trajectory of his life. Yet again, he surprised me with the long vision of his answer.
“It wasn’t until this season that I got the wake-up, and it was from my coach and my dad, that polo is something I can do. I can be the best in the United States--I have everything I need, I just need to apply myself. I see polo as being in my life from now until the day I die...I hope to be able to do what my dad does, and what one of my heroes Nacho Figueras does, and that’s to balance business, and polo, so I can be comfortable, and do what I love at the same time. I hope I can achieve that.
“My coach has been with me for three years. I’ll be honest, he’s the reason I love polo as much as I do now. He made that starting stage, where it’s so frustrating and difficult to get into, really enjoyable, and even as an unknowing, bratty ten-year-old I still really liked it. He made it fun for me, and that’s why I love it now.
“I really appreciate Wakefield’s support. The fact that I can [go to Florida for the winter] shows that Wakefield is a school that supports all different types of students in their passions.
“I love polo, and I love the people I’ve met through it. My coach just had a son, and the plan is for me to be his mentor. And who knows, maybe that guy will teach my son someday.”