They call it the sport of kings, but one young lady begs to differ. At 25 years old, Uneku Atawodi has played professional polo in more than 14 countries. She has represented her country at the Federation of International Polo, which makes her the first black, female, professional polo player to compete at international level.
The Nigerian youth began her journey into professional polo at the age of 16. In Kaduna, in north-central Nigeria, where she grew up, polo was almost a weekly ritual in her family. After having played casually for two years, she was ready to make a career of it. Her parents tried to talk her out of it and stopped paying for the upkeep of her horses. Atawodi enrolled for a qualification in Equestrian Sports Science at the University of Brighton, in England. It was then that she began to work at horse stables to gain more experience and received a stage 4 riding accreditation from the British Horse Society.
“I was quite fascinated by the sport from the first time I watched it and had always wanted to play polo, but my uncles would discourage me by saying: ‘No, you’re a girl, you should try other sports instead’ or ‘A woman’s place, is not on a horse, you won’t get married’. I had also tried out hunting, in England, but there was something about the horses. I was in love and fascinated with them right from the onset. I was passionate about polo,” says Atawodi.
Her passion kept her undeterred; each game gave her a bigger thrill, but Atawodi soon realized that she needed to finance her expensive passion. The costs of playing polo are high: a thoroughbred or thoroughbred cross Argentinian horse ranges from $15,000 to $20,000 or more, and they need to be well looked after and trained if they are to excel. Players’ kits are also pricey, polo riding boots range from $600 to $800 a pair.
More determined than ever, she was ready to swing the mallet for money.
“I believe that if you truly want something, regardless of how wealthy your family might be, it is your responsibility to work for your dream, not expect others to fund your plans. I think my parents’ stern decision bred a strong will in me. It encouraged a strong work ethic and a vibrant belief that every aim is eventually achievable if you work hard for it.”
With this in mind, Atawodi knew it was time to make a change. She returned to Nigeria and began to work at the Federal Capital Territory Administration, in Abuja, as a special duties officer. At that time, she also pursued a business venture in the hospitality sector.
Her love of polo and bid to change perceptions of it being an elitist sport, led Atawodi to establish an NGO called Ride to Shine. It is here, at this non-profit organization in Abuja, that a few orphans are raised to be future polo stars.
“I wanted to open these doors for the children because through my polo handicap, I’ve been able to see the world. This is what I love to do and what better way to share with the children than to give them this gift?”
She is also building a resort in Abuja, the capital city, that will facilitate polo tournaments for children. All proceeds will go to the Ride to Shine trust fund.
“I want them to be ambassadors for Nigeria through polo,” she says.
With a handicap of zero, Atawodi had bigger plans.
“Owning my own team is what I ultimately wanted,’’ she says.
This became a reality as she owns 17 horses and runs a team called Bamboo.
“[It] is a rather new team, we have played in a few Nigerian tournaments and we are now aiming to have the team play around the world.”
One of the tournaments the team has participated in is Polo For A Cause, Atlanta. This event is hosted in partnership with equestrian brand, La Martina, to raise money for orphans in Africa. The tournament will continue to be hosted in various states across the United States to raise awareness and benefit charities.
The team recently played at the Miami beach tournament, where she was a role model.
“It was amazing to have so many little girls inspired by my participation. As the only girl in the tournament, it was a lot of fun,” she says.
Atawodi represented Nigeria in her role as a ‘global shaper’ at this year’s World Economic Forum. She is also writing a book about polo; it will see her traveling the world and learning about the history of polo in many countries.
With more points to score both on and off the polo field, Atawodi is keeping her eyes squarely on the ball.