Polo has been a male-dominated sport for centuries. Women players were few and far between in the early days of the sport — but that’s beginning to change now. For many women polo players, the game is a symbol of empowerment. For Mumbai-based Rinaa Shah, the first Indian woman polo player who turned professional at 40, it is all about the adrenaline and the horses.
Explaining what made her jump into the sport, Rinaa says, “Nine years ago, I had gone to watch a polo game in Mumbai with a friend. That was my first time watching the game, and I instantly fell in love. The adrenaline and the horses made me want to try the sport. I have never looked back.” Describing polo as the toughest thing she has done in life, Rinaa says, “The physical challenge was immense, as I took up this sport late in life. I had to change my food regime and my workout regime. I had to make my back strong with yoga and a functional workout. Polo takes a lot out of you, so you need to constantly remain fit and build stamina.” Rinaa has been following a strict workout and diet regime. Besides riding five times a week, she does weights, yoga, functional and swimming. “I also play a few games of Squash a month to build my stamina. My diet mostly comprises protein and only good carbs,” she shares.
Initially, Rinaa’s family was against her taking up polo because of it being a dangerous sport. “The number of injuries I have had gave them reason to worry. But my passion overcame it all and I convinced them that this was what I wanted to do, and I was going to do it,” says Rinaa, adding, “They came to watch me play after three years, but now they are very proud of me.”
Her background was anything but sports-oriented. Rinaa went to an all-girls’ school in Mumbai and then studied Finance at Sydenham College. She went to the Harvard Business School to learn International Business, and later graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology (New York) to become India’s first footwear designer. Additionally, before she was 20, Rinaa had got two degrees, one in Bharatanatyam and the other in Kathak. She started training for polo at the Mahalakshmi Race Course in Mumbai in 2011. A couple of falls from the horse, resulting in fractures during her initial training days, didn’t shatter her confidence, they only made her more determined. After training in Argentina and UK, she won two beginner polo tournaments in Jodhpur in a very short span of time. She has played many tournaments in India and abroad — at Jaipur, Jodhpur, Delhi, Mumbai, Thailand, UK, USA and more. “One of my most memorable tournaments was the Hermés Cup in Jodhpur,” she says. In the last couple of years, Rinaa has been a fixture on the polo circuit, playing back-to-back tournaments across the country. She has also founded her own polo team under the name ‘Rinaldi Polo’, featuring some of India’s top names, including Arjuna Award-winner Samir Suhag, Chirag Parekh and Gaurav Sehgal, apart from herself.
“Physically it’s hard to compete with the men and they had a hard time accepting that I had entered the sport and meant to stay. Initially, they made fun of me behind my back and predicted that I would quit any minute,” recalls Rinaa, adding, “but when I got my own team, things changed. They realised that I had done what they hadn’t been able to do.” According to Rinaa, polo has not reached the level at which it should be played in India. “It’s slowing down and that’s because we don’t have enough people playing it and the infrastructure is not the best,” she says, adding, “There are no polo schools in India either.” Acknowledging that being one of the most expensive sports is a constraint, Rinaa notes that a few players are keeping it alive and trying to grow it for the sake of youngsters.
And Rinaa is not only a polo player — she is also a DJ, a percussionist and a footwear designer. “I love all these equally as they all came into my life at a point when I needed them and inspired me to learn more. I always wanted to be an athlete and a musician while growing up. Each one fulfils me in a different way,” she reveals.
She is now planning to host a beach polo match in Goa after the lockdown.
“I am also planning to launch my IP in a music event in November 2021. It will be a one-of-a-kind event in Goa. I also plan on introducing drums which I have created myself, and will combine it with my role as DJ” she concludes.