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Shariah Harris, Work To Ride/Grand Champions Make History At U.S. Open Women's Polo Championship

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. February 3, 2024---Shariah Harris never dreamed she would play in the U.S. Open Women's Polo Championship let alone make history.

By Sharon Robb

Photos by Candace Ferreira

Harris, 25, will be the first black woman to play in the prestigious tournament that begins Sunday at Port Mayaca Polo Club. The fact it's Black History Month is not lost on the talented 3-goal rated player.

"I think I am always going to get a second look because I'm black," Harris said. "I've been given the label trail blazer so if that means me opening doors for other black women, or women of color or women who didn't think they could do it, and I am the one that's able to break barriers for them to make it through, then that's good enough for me."

Harris' first game is Sunday against Iconica at 11:30 a.m. Harris' teammates are British 10-goaler Nina Clarkin, Maddie Grant and Caitlin Cregg on the team sponsored by Grand Champions Polo Club President and World Polo League co-founder Melissa Ganzi, who has made her share of history in the sport.

"With the people that have known about the Work To Ride program, whose known about me, it's not even a question," Harris said. "But coming into new environments I still always get like a little 'oh' or just a side eye. The more exposure I attract the more others will see and follow, then I won't be the only one any more."

It will be the first time Clarkin, one of the best players in the world, will play with Harris in a major tournament.

"I am really excited for her and to play with her," Clarkin said. "I have heard great things about her. I can't wait. Melissa Ganzi has done an amazing thing and it's a great opportunity for all of us."

Harris first approached Ganzi last fall at the Philadelphia Polo Classic to talk about potential sponsors.

"I just approached her with an idea," Harris said. "I didn't expect her to sponsor a team. It was a big ask but she wanted to do it. She's been amazing."

Lezlie Hiner, founder of the Philadelphia-based Work To Ride program, was the first person Harris called about playing in the Open.

"She was so excited," Harris said. "It's going to be a great moment. It's going to give attention to the program that it deserves. I'm excited to see her at the games because it will be a great moment for her."

Work To Ride is a non-profit organization that provides horsemanship education and equine sports training to low-income youth, ages 7 to 18, from under-resourced communities.

Harris earned a scholarship to Cornell for her academic and athletic abilities. She graduated with a degree in Animal Science and went back to school and got her registered nurse license. Despite a full-time nursing job at Lankenau Medical Center outside of Philadelphia, Harris wants to continue playing.

"I definitely would alter my job a little bit if I had more opportunities to play," Harris said. "Nursing is so flexible that I could find something that allows me to play more like a travel nurse. I want more opportunities to get to play more. The Open will give me a better stage to meet the people I need to meet to get more chances to play."

Harris grew up in inner-city Philadelphia, one of three children in a single-income household. Her introduction to polo was by accident after a wrong turn in the Fairmount Park neighborhood landed Harris, her mother Sharmell and her younger brother at the Work to Ride site. She has been breaking barriers in a white, male-dominated sports ever since.  

At 12, her fourth year in the program, she joined the polo team. She was named National Interscholastic Player of the Year as a high school senior. Her sophomore year at Cornell she was the first black woman to play in a high goal tournament in Greenwich, Conn.

"I was nervous...I was so nervous," Harris said. "I was playing with and against people who I had just watched playing and were my favorite players. It was rattling but in the end it was a great experience."

Women's polo now accounts for nearly 50 percent of the U.S. Polo Association membership.

"Just give us a chance," Harris said with a smile. "That's really all we need. There's plenty of women out there now that show they can compete with the men. It's not just women players, they are polo players."

Eight teams will compete in the tournament presented by Brad and Kathy Coors Foundation. Preliminary and semifinal games will be at Port Mayaca Polo Club. La Fe is defending champion. The team is playing without Pamela Alina Devaleix who is expecting her first baby, a girl, with husband Louis.

The other seven U.S. Open women's teams are:

BTA/Lazy 3: KC Krueger, 6, Sarah Wiseman, 7, Anna Palacios, 5, Jordan Fikes, 3.

Buena Vibra: Clara Cassino Seppe, 8, Milly Hine, 8, Valentina Tarazona, 1, Cory Williams, 4.

90210 Polo: Sarah Siegel-Magness, 2, Mia Cambiaso, 8, Cata Lavigna, 7, Meghan Gracida, 4.

Iconica: Maureen Brennan, 5, Cande Fernandez  Araujo, 9, Luisa del Carril, 5, Winifred Branscum, 3.

La Fe: Hope Arellano, 10, Hanan Fadil, 1, Hazel Jackson, 10, Naomi Marlough, 1.

Mint Eco Carwash: Kylie Sheehan, 5, Malia Bryan, 5, Cecelia Cochran, Izzy Parsons, 8.

Parrotheads Polo: Lia Salvo, 9, Fatima Balzano, 6, Roni Duke, 2, Sophie Grant, 5.



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