Three ladies and a polo tournament

Wahengbam Tiken *

Opening Ceremony : 11th Manipur Polo International 2017 at Mapal Kangjeibung on 22 November 2017
Opening Ceremony : 11th Manipur Polo International at Mapal Kangjeibung on 22 Nov 2017 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

When Ed Armstrong, the manager of the USA team sent out an invitation to interested polo players for the 11th Manipur Polo International, 2017, Kelly Wells insisted on her son, Brennan Wells, applying for it, as she was very keen on seeing the birthplace of polo. This is not surprising at all, as it is the wish of every polo enthusiast and player with any sense of history of the game to visit the place from where the game originated.

Also, the Manipur Polo International tournament has a history of mothers, girlfriends and wives coming with the teams to lend support. We even had women polo players turning out for their country as Rowena Stichbury did for Kenya in the 10th Manipur Polo International, 2016.

This time around, besides Kelly Wells, two other ladies, Olivia Berube, wife of Nate Berube of USA and Zine Alexandra, wife of Hicham Zine of Morocco, also came along to support their teams and particularly their husbands. Let us find out a little more about them, their background, connection with polo, and their impressions about the tournament, the place and the people, among other things.

Kelly Wells decided to come to Manipur after hearing the experiences of the members of the women US polo team, many of whom were her students, which came here in January 2017 for the Women's Tournament and was glad she did. Besides the thrill of watching Brennan play in front of a huge crowd in a very competitive tournament, she also had a glimpse of the place, its people and culture.

Kelly, who grew up in New York moved to Maryland, East Coast when she was 27 years old, and at present owns and runs the 'Marlan Farm' where she trains young children to ride and play polo. Kelly also coaches middle and high school teams and some of the most accomplished women polo players in USA including her 21 years old daughter, Marissa Wells, are her students. Marissa plays is a one goaler, plays for Texas A&M University and was declared the Top Female College Player. "Marissa and Brennan are my star students and I am extremely proud of them", she gushes.

One felt that sense of pride watching Kelly run up and down the sidelines of the polo field at Mapal Kangjeibung to catch Brennan in action, camera in hand. On asked about it, Kelly revealed that though as a mother she feels elated when Brennan plays well and scores goals, at the same time, the coach in her is constantly taking notes of his mistakes and "trying to figure out ways to do things better".

Kelly first learned to play polo under the watchful eyes of her father, Dale Chambers, a 3 goaler and later at Cornell University, Dave Eldredge polished her game further. Talking about the game of polo Kelly says, "I am every passionate about polo, it's my profession and that's how I make my living". She also loves travelling and interacting with people from different backgrounds and polo has given her the perfect platform for that.

The exceptionally well-organized tournament where "every little small details were taken care of, right from the ceremonies, the presentations, the ponies, the grooms, to the drivers of the team cars". "The beautiful children and the women in the marketplace, the ornate traditional dress, the noisy, bustling spectators at the games and the hospitality of the people are some of the memories I will take back home", says Kelly as we wind up the interview.

As with Kelly, Olivia Berube has been looking forward to coming to Manipur and playing polo after hearing stories about Manipur from her friends, who had come here to play women's polo tournament. Her wish came true partly as she made the trip here with husband Nate Berube, a member of USA team for the 11th Manipur Polo International, 2017.
Olivia is from Baltimore, Maryland and has a degree in Equine science and English. She grew up in a farm, started riding right from the age of two and when she reached 13, she took up polo. Incidentally, Kelly Wells was her first coach. Olivia made quick strides and before long, she was playing for her high school team. She also went on to represent the Colorado State University and won the All American Polo Player award consecutively for three years (2005, 2006, 2007).

The husband and wife team of Olivier and Nate Berube not only play a lot of polo together but also train horses and teach children and adults to play polo in their 40 acres farm 'Berube Polo' in Aiken, South Carolina. Besides this, Olivia also manages tournaments for United States Polo Association (USPA) for middle schools, high schools and colleges.

Coming to the birthplace of polo and watching the game being played at the oldest living polo ground in the world, the Mapal Kangjeibung, has been an "incredibly huge opportunity" for Olivia. As for the tournament, she said the matches were of very high quality with little separating the winners from the teams that lost out, "the matches US lost to Argentina and Manipur could have gone either way".

During the tournament, Olivia not only cheered the US team from the sidelines but also did a lot of homework for the team, studying the ponies, photographing them and identifying suitable ponies for particular players, "for instance, Nick (Johnson) needs a faster horse whereas Nate needed a sturdier one".

For Olivia, the massive crowd, which came everyday to watch the matches was a new experience, "it shows how much they love the game". Among other memories of Manipur for her would count the visit to Loktak Lake, "very unique lake" and shrine of Lord Marjing. And, how can she forget the experience of being photographed thousands of times, "I was heavily photographed maybe because I am blonde". Did it get irritating, this pestering for photographs? "No, they seem so excited to meet me that I could not get irritated".

We hope Olivia comes back, fulfills her desire to play in the place where polo originated and also give a chance to all those who missed out on a photograph with her this time around.

Unlike Kelly and Olivia, Zine Alexandra, wife of Moroccan player Hicham Zine, is not into riding and polo but loves horses. Raised in Bordeaux, she is a wholesaler of cosmetic products with representatives in Italy, Germany and Paris. Alexandra has a 10-year-old daughter, Selya and two sons, Nahyl, 8years and Dalil 8 months.

She was studying to be an accountant at Philadelphe De Gerde but had to give it up when her father passed away as the responsibility of bringing up her two younger brothers fell on her. She started selling cosmetics going door to door and overtime she became a wholesaler and established her own company.

Back home, her husband Hicham has a polo team of his own and four horses. They engage two Argentine polo players for six months every year to play for the team and take care of the horses. Alexandra likes watching polo and supporting her husband's team. Having been introduced the thrill of polo, she would like her two sons to take up the game.

Coming to Manipur has been a whole new experience for Alexandra. She found the people "very welcoming, the way women dress is very different from the way we dress" and the food "very spicy". The all-women market fascinated Alexandra no end, "we spent two hours buying shawls and other items". Alexandra also liked the dance performances at the Sangai Festival and the Loktak Lake and its fisher folks left an indelible impression on her.

Even though the Morocco lost all its matches, Alexandra feels, in the ultimate analysis, everybody emerged winners, even the Moroccan team, "as they got an opportunity to play against some very experienced polo players from other countries and India". She also had some special words of praise for her husband, who despite his inexperience, having taken up polo only two years back, "played very well and never lacked fighting spirit".

As our little interaction came to an end, Zine Alexandra expressed her desire to come back to Manipur again, "the way we were welcomed, pulls us back here".

* Wahengbam Tiken wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on December 20, 2017.

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