Sunny Hale wants this much to be clear: She has no interest in ridiculing male colleagues or in proving some point about gender bias. It just happens that the sport she loves is polo, the upper ranks of which throb with some of the world's most macho athletes. And it happens that Hale is the top-ranked U.S. female polo player, one of only a handful of women who successfully compete in elite international tournaments. "My aspiration has always been to be accepted by the upper-level players," says Hale, 28. "Accepted because of my playing. Not because they wanted the oddity of having a girl on their team."
In her decade as a pro, she has won the respect of polo's best. "Sunny is the strongest three-goal player in the United States," says Memo Gracida, the Mexican star who is one of 11 players worldwide with a 10-goal ranking, the highest possible. "Her playing is very aggressive. She's always very cool, very controlled. She was born on the saddle."
That's almost literally true. Sunny's mother, Sue Sally Hale, was a pioneer woman polo player. She competed during the 1950s and '60s disguised as a man. "I pushed my long hair under a hat and wore a large shirt," recalls the senior Hale, who still plays polo at 60. "I never spoke a word. Only the guys on my team knew I was a girl." Sue Sally, a single parent, struggled financially on her Carmel, Calif., ranch, where she trained horses and taught riding with the help of Sunny and her four siblings.
Sunny, whose given name is Sunset, learned to ride before she could walk. "I used to put my coloring books on top of my pony and color the way some kids will go to a corner and color," she says. By 15 she was playing polo regularly, and three years later she turned professional, finishing high school in a home-study program. She has played matches in Prance, Jamaica, England and Hawaii. And she has been picked for teams, which have four members, in high-goal tournaments at Palm Beach Polo Golf and Country Club in Wellington, Fla., where Gracida and other prestige players, mostly from Latin America, converge each winter. Hale lives there during the polo season with her longtime boyfriend, Ted Moore, who is a four-goal player.
Last year Hale became the first U.S. woman to achieve a four-goal ranking. But in polo, work comes more readily to players whose abilities exceed their ranking. That's especially true for a woman. And so Hale campaigned successfully to drop back to three-goal status.
"There's a lot of back patting and 'Hey, buddy' stuff in this sport," observes Kris Bowman, co-owner of Polo Vacations of Wellington, one of three private schools that teach polo and are operated by women. "A woman has to be twice as good as a man to get a job. There's no doubt about that. You have the Latin influence and attitude toward women."
Even the U.S. Polo Association, the sport's governing body here, seems somewhat dismissive of women in high-goal play. "There just aren't many gals in a position to compete at that level," says George Alexander Jr., the association's executive director. "To those who are, more power to them. Sunny Hale has played on the best polo teams in the country, at the highest levels. She's a hell of a good little polo player."
Hale has endured more than her share of resistance. "I've had guys say they're going to run me over, going to kill me," she says. "I've been called every word in the bad-word dictionary. I'm in a sport where it's more common for men to be good than for women. So I'm going to take some criticism. And I'm willing to take that. I'm more interested in playing a good game than reacting angrily to someone who's just being chauvinistic."
Despite polo's difficulties and dangers, Hale intends to rise as high in the sport as her ability allows and to stop competing seriously only when she peaks as a performer.
"Every athlete hopes to quit when he is at the top," Hale says. "Or when she is."