Gearing up again to compete in the 2020 U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship Semifinals after the tournament was postponed in March due to COVID-19, the field narrowed down with two semifinalists forfeitures. This decision quickly sent Hawaii Polo Life and BTA/The Villages straight to the final on Saturday, February 27.
Ready to defend their 2019 title, Hawaii Polo Life—composed of Pamela Flanagan, Mia Cambiaso, Cande Fernandez-Araujo, and Sierra Dunbar with Nina Clarkin and Dolores Onetto as subs—added a new player to the roster as they went up against the original all-American BTA/The Villages with Kylie Sheehan, Paige Boone, KC Krueger, and Tiffany Busch. Coming out well-organized and strong from the first chukker, Hawaii Polo Life led throughout the entire game to once again raise the prestigious women’s trophy with 6-5.
Taking control of the game early on, Hawaii Polo Life displayed their confidence in one another with three consecutive goals in the first chukker. “We knew that they [BTA/The Villages] were going to come in really hard, so our plan was to play as hard as we could and get as many goals on the board in the first half,” Pamela says. “Since that team has been playing a lot together and they know each other well, we knew they were going to reorganize and form a new strategy at halftime to come back stronger in the second half.”
Capitalizing on a Penalty 2 conversion for BTA/The Villages, KC’s goal would be the only one for her team in the first half. Although the game was riddled with fouls for both teams throughout the second chukker, Nina was able to take advantage twice from the Penalty 2 line as the high-scorer for her team. Unable to make a successful shot on goal, BTA/The Villages went scoreless reflecting a 5-1 tally at halftime in favor of Hawaii Polo Life.
Keeping her team in the game, KC opened the third chukker with another Penalty 2 conversion hoping to put a stop to the widening gap. Demonstrating the ability of her 10-goal handicap, Nina called Pamela off the ball in a key play, finding a preferred opportunity to nail the ball into the goal.
Still trailing by four headed into the final chukker, BTA/The Villages sprung into action late in the game to produce their most offensive chukker of the day. Reliable on her penalties, KC converted a third time and was followed up by Paige who lifted the ball into the air and through the goalposts.
With just over a minute left on the clock, Tiffany gained possession and guided the ball through defenders to come within one. Holding onto their advantage, Hawaii Polo Life outlasted BTA/The Villages’ final surge to claim their second title with 6-5.
“This win is a really big deal for us and especially for our corporate sponsor Hawaii Polo Life,” Pamela shares. “Coming out of nowhere and winning in 2019, it’s really special to have back-to-back titles, so winning for Chris [Dawson] means more to me than anything else.”
Flying in from New Zealand the day before the final, Nina found it easier to jump into the final with her former teammates. “I took an overnight flight to Los Angeles and then another overnight flight to Florida,” she narrates. “I arrived yesterday, stick and balled, and then came to play today, so it wasn’t ideal. But I was given amazing ponies, and when you play horses of that quality, it’s very easy to just get on.”
Having access to horses from Adolfo Cambiaso, J5 Equestrian, and Sarah Siegel-Magness, Hawaii Polo Life came into the final extremely well mounted. “To me, the ponies are everything,” Nina adds. “I don’t feel like I can play as good of polo as I’m capable of without quality ponies so I couldn’t have asked for more.”
Although Pamela, Nina, and Mia were familiar with each other after playing and winning in 2019, Dolores was introduced to the team dynamic for the first time in the 2020 final.
“Dolores is an incredible horsewoman, and that’s why we wanted her on our team,” Pamela explains. “First and foremost, we wanted a good, solid rider who could keep up, take the man and really get in the game and she did all of that.”
Having no opportunity to practice as a team beforehand, the women of Hawaii Polo Life came together really well on the field, with Dolores playing for the first time at the 18- to 22-goal level. “I only truly started playing polo about two years ago so I don’t have much experience in fast-paced games like this,” she reveals. “This win is just so surreal for me—to be put on a team like that, to even be considered. I was grateful to actually be playing with these wonderful women and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.”
BTA/The Villages’ Tiffany Busch was named Most Valuable Player. “It is a true honor to be named MVP for such a prestigious tournament. I look forward to continuing with this team through the next few tournaments, I feel we will only get stronger!” she exclaims.
Best Playing Pony honors were awarded to 11-year-old Dolfina María (Durazno x Dolfina Celina), played by Mia Cambiaso in the first chukker.
Regarded as one of the top women’s players in the world, Nina is looking forward to the opportunity to play with young talents in the 2021 U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship. “I think as long as we have the support of clubs like the International Polo Club Palm Beach and we get the exposure of playing on fields like this, women’s polo will just keep growing,” she remarks. “We just have to keep making sure we have enough players coming up and that we’re giving them the right direction and the opportunities they deserve to come in and join us so that we can continue growing the sport.”