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krista carlson

New Nonfiction

Challenging the Myth of
Female Frailty in the 21st Century

Insight on coed competition in hardcourt bike polo

by Krista Carlson

bike polo goal

A Surreptitious Introduction

      I first heard about bike polo in June of 2008, when my pal Alex called to tell me about this awesome new game he had started playing. From what I could tell, it was an amalgam of bikes, bodys and mallets—it sounded like chaos. I let the whole summer pass by without figuring out what “bike polo” really was.
      But as summer was winding down, Alex called me up again.
      “Hey, we’re having a little barbecue at the park down in North Hollywood. You should come by. We’re playing polo and grilling; stop by and have a beer,” Dash said, with a ring in his voice. “We’re at the rink in the back of the park.”
      It was Labor Day, which meant a rare Monday off, so I headed to the park alone, looking forward to demystifying this funny concept of polo with bikes instead of horses. Besides, who says “no” to a barbeque in the park?
      A dozen man-boys and a couple women made up the group gathered for bike polo that day. I didn’t know anyone there but Alex, who was pedaling across the rink with a mallet in his left hand, chasing a little orange ball. The game intrigued me, and as I watched the itch to give it a try grew hotter. I didn’t play that day; I just took it all in.
      It would be another month before I made it out again, when I would hop onto my janky mountain bike and awkwardly roll around the court trying to stay in control of my bike, my mallet and my sense of direction as my two teammates and three opponents whizzed back and forth past me.
      “Get in the way” is the best advice I’m offered, so I make an effort to obstruct the path of the enemy—a daring move that leads to a messy collision in which my rear wheel comes loose from my bike. I can feel my skin burning the red fire of humiliation, but it’s too late: I’m hooked and I want to come back, play more, get better.

bench minor ladies

The Watermark of Title IX

      Title IX was 11 years old by the time I was born, and although much had been done to impede its effects, participation among women and girls in sports was growing rapidly. In the first six years following the 1972 ruling, the number of girls engaged in high school sports increased sixfold, in spite of the near to a dozen various resolutions and amendments aimed at limiting the equal opportunities Title IX aimed to provide for.
      While women were participating in the Olympic marathon for the first time ever at the Los Angeles 1984 Games, I was just learning to walk.
      By the time I found bike polo, I had never played organized team sports (unless you count dancing) and I didn’t know much about bikes. Right away I was out of my element. Even though my parents had taught me to discard racial discrimination and question institutional authority, I was still expected to fulfill a very specific gender role—one that entailed playing with dolls and wearing pink dresses.
      I learned to love the dolls and dresses, but later on in life, when the toys were supposed to prepare me for the things I would do as an adult, I found myself in a state of dissonance. I wanted to be strong, able and confident, but everyone around me seemed to expect me to want and need help, to be more timid than brave.
      The only competition my friends hoped to see me in was a catfight, and dressing up and putting on makeup wasn’t just costuming anymore; it was what was expected of me. This was affirmed repeatedly with remarks from both male and female bosses encouraging me to make myself look nice. (The problem wasn’t that I was frumpy or haggard, really, but rather that I often tried to dress down my femininity in hopes of deflecting unwanted sexual attention.)
      Although the dissonance lingered, I stayed on my side of the gender divide. Sports and mechanics barely breached the periphery of my day to day life. I rejected feminist arguments that women were still being oppressed and shortchanged, believing that to acknowledge any discrepancies between men and women was to cede power to the things that separate us.
       And until bike polo forced me to confront social expectations squarely, I never connected this discord with any semblance of feminism.

los angeles bike polo ladies

Strange New Spaces

      From the start I was welcomed onto the polo court at local pickup games. There were a few players who would show disappointment in ending up on a team with me or the single other female who played in L.A. five years ago, and disregard our presence as teammates, but the predominant ethos was welcoming of all players. This attitude dominated and won out; conflicting perspectives either evolved or the players stopped coming to play with the girls—and everyone else.
      For a long time there were only two women who played polo in L.A., and there were days I felt like a stranger in a strange land. But I embraced my identity as a polo player and took initiative to grow participation.
       One pivotal experience for many female polo players has been the Ladies Army tournament. What began as a one-day compliment to a larger two-day tournament; it was a chance for the women who played bike polo to come together, and to encourage participation among women. Today there are many more female players in L.A. and everywhere else polo is played as well.

bike polo birdie down

Modern Sensitivities

      Bike polo is a contact sport, one in which players depend on an inventory of protective gear: helmet, face cage (as in hockey), elbow pads, gloves, knee pads, shin guards. Handlebars and mallet shafts must be capped. Scrapes and bruises are part of the fun. It’s not quite hockey—fighting is not acceptable—but physical play is definitely a part of the game.
      While women’s participation in sports continues to fall short of men’s, the proportion of women who choose contact sports is even smaller. Women account for only 24 percent of bicycle ridership in the U.S. Accordingly, just five percent of bike polo players are female. Despite their small demographic sliver, women have been involved in the development of modern hardcourt bike polo since its birth.
      When players in Canada and the U.S. sought to standardize bike polo across the continent, the makeup of representatives rounding out the North American Hardcourt association reflected a little more allowance for women. The region where polo had thrived the longest—the Pacific Northwest (Cascadia)—elected women for all of its three regional seats. Overall, women held 2 out of every 9 seats across the 7 regions and 50-plus cities participating in NAH.
      “[Polo] has given me a new passion to focus my energy and skills on,” said Lisa Moffatt, the first woman to be appointed to the NAH board. Years of advocacy and program development gave Moffatt a solid grasp of what the sport needed to grow.
      While working out the kinks in the first official NAH competitive structure, she was also thinking of ways to ensure women didn’t drift away as the sport became more serious.
      “I was worried women would get lost in the shuffle,” she said. Moffatt spearheaded the charge for Ladies Army, an all-women’s tournament that would stand apart from the coed standard. “I wanted the fun to remain in polo and I wanted more women to be encouraged to play. The atmosphere when playing with women is so different—we celebrate each other’s successes more than our own.”
      Established the same year that North American and World championships took hold, Ladies Army has come to be a success recognized by many. The tournament has evolved from a one-day ancillary event with 12 teams to a two-day competition with 34 teams and international attendance.
      The fourth installation of Ladies Army in April, 2012, held in Lexington, Kentucky, was attended by both men and women from across the globe; competitors from throughout North America, Europe and Japan made their way to the midwestern state to compete in what was unofficially, but technically in terms of attendance, the world championships for women’s bike polo. But since it’s a coed sport no one ever has ever recognized it as such; that’s just a courtside observation.
       Two years prior I attended Ladies Army II in New York. The trip, which I took alone, was pivotal for me in many ways. Because there was less than a full team’s worth of women in L.A., I needed to team up with women I had never met from other cities. In the scope of this reality, it was incredible to see such strong, skilled women on the polo court, moving faster and playing harder than I’d seen many men play. It stretched my idea of what I could be capable of. It inspired me; it fueled me to want to get better. Also, it was so exciting, so fun, to be able to share my love and excitement of polo with so many other women who were just as psyched about playing bike polo as I was.
      Being a female athlete and polo player makes me challenge my own ideas about what I can do and makes me a happenstance role model for women who are exposed to the sport. Further, both men and women are intrigued that I play a sport they consider “hard” and even “dangerous.” Personally, I consider the game to be amazing fun and incredibly rewarding in terms of teamwork, competition and camaraderie.

bike polo channeling jordan

Antiquated Realities

      While the Bike Polo community would like to project the identity of one big, happy, coed family, the myth of feminine frailty clouds this ideal scene. Although women have found fair representation in an organizational sense, patriarchal attitudes still permeate the sporting arena. Sexism manifests itself through women getting secondary consideration for team and sponsorship opportunities, sexual heckles, fewer passes on the court, lowered expectations for performance on the court, and banter laced with chauvinistic wit that falls short of actually being witty.
      Dr. Dudley Sargent caused an uproar in 1912 when he wrote in Ladies’ Home Journal that men and women shared the same athletic potential; 100 years later this idea is still hotly contested.
      My enthusiasm for sports has led me to confront gender equity and inequality simply by being present in a realm dominated by men and machismo—bike jocks are still jocks, after all. I have no choice but to acknowledge that there are different expectations for female athletes, yet these discrepancies are eroding, since embracing coed play implicitly contests the misogynistic attitude that women are weak and inferior.
      When I was in Spokane and Missoula playing with newer clubs recently, I was the first woman many of the players had ever shared a court with. They were just as welcoming as they would have been to any other player, and I treated all their wives and girlfriends as if they could get on the court too, never making any assumptions that they wouldn't be—which surprised them. In one city someone remarked that I was the first girl they'd ever seen play polo. And then I proceeded to shut out his team.
      Strategy, teamwork, communication, and agility all play just as large a role in polo as physical strength does. Moreover, playing polo has challenged me to improve in so many ways, including in physical strength. Other ways in which I’ve grown through bike polo include working with others, perseverance, patience in the course of getting better, and leadership.
      Some of the moments that encouraged me not to quit—and inspired a good lot of frustration at the same time—included being on the court with men who doubted my abilities simply because I was female and not necessarily even having ever seen me play.

bike polo rink

Something Like a Silver Lining

      The coed nature of bike polo creates an environment where those who support mixed-gender competition and play have an opportunity to influence their peers. Midway through 201l, regional rep Kiersten George posed the question “Where do women belong in the future of bike polo?” on the community’s central online forum,
      “We can reinforce the notion that people with vaginas are delicate little flowers who need protecting from the real manly men of the world,” responded Sarah Livingston, a polo player from Los Angeles. “We can avoid confronting those difficult misogynistic attitudes that are so blatantly obvious whenever coed games occur in tournaments today. And we can then watch the women's league dwindle into obscurity and near-extinction, as most professional sports have done before us.
      “On the other hand, we can continue to play as hardcourt has always been played—open to all willing to hold a mallet and possibly suffer bodily injury. We can open our eyes to the gross transgressions that are made every day, in every form of bigotry, and work to change those attitudes and behaviors from within.”
      The response was overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining the coed nature of the game; while some of the loudest outcries, from several men and a few women, were actually against the annual women’s only Ladies’ Army tournament—reverse discrimination and perpetuating segregation fueled the arguments against the event.
       “Denying entry to a tournament based upon gender is just as bad as denying entry to a tournament based upon sexual orientation, race, or religion,” wrote Portland polo player Pete Abram. “You shouldn't be treating people differently for reasons that do not merit different treatment.”

      “The reason that I've heard most often for having ladies only tournaments is that such tournaments give ladies 'an opportunity to shine', place higher in the rankings, or what-have-you,” he continues. “If I were a woman, I'd feel insulted by this perceived need to level the playing field. I'd want to be the best at the game, not only the best within some subgroup that doesn't fully represent polo as a whole.”

      As a woman, I honestly do agree with Pete’s sentiment on wanting to be the best in bike polo, not just women’s bike polo. However, I see Ladies Army as an opportunity to bring us all together and reinforce the talent of this particular swath of the polo community, since it is typically just a tiny handful of us at any event. Incidentally, while the women’s only tournament has evolved alongside NAH and the formal tournament structure that supports the North American and world championships, Ladies Army is not actually an NAH event, and doesn’t contribute to player rankings or qualifications.
      “The competitive community of bike polo seems to support the coed conditions we play under now,” says Chandel Reyes, “The basic idea being that if you can play at that level then you shouldn’t be restricted because of gender.” Reyes has lived and played polo in four North American cities, and admits that local attitudes influence how female players are treated city to city.
      “I started playing in Toronto when there were only a couple females playing, and they were dating male players. The guys that wanted the sport to grow started a beginner ladies night to encourage slower playing and growth first. I started there but quickly that night fell by the wayside as we took it seriously and started playing regularly coed. I think they only play coed nights in Toronto now. I haven't seen another female only night since then.”
      Reyes believes that Ladies Army is the most positive influence for women in bike polo, because it gives them opportunity to be a bit more daring and showcase their skills more than they typically get to.
      “Why that is can be related to the "intimidation" or "over-playing" factor of males that some females experience in their own clubs/cities/lives,” Reyes says. Despite the disadvantage perpetuated by gender stereotypes, a unified competitive field is preferred by most.
      “I don't think we should consider a separation at all,” she says. “Our sport is unique in that female players are encouraged to continue pursuing upper level competitive standings within the community as a whole.”
       Sharing Reyes’s perspective, I have always tried to approach polo with the attitude that I am an equal in this arena, even though there have been times when I have felt that my womanhood has made me less strong than my male counterparts. In this way, playing polo has taught me lessons about eradicating the few remaining bits of thinking in my head that I, as a woman, am in some way inferior, and about how to challenge myself to be faster and stronger and tougher and play harder than I thought I could. Some days it’s as simple as challenging myself to go faster than I think I can, or leaning in to a player trying to muscle me out of the way (often leading to a “woah, that really worked!” moment).
       In this way, I've been able to teach the players who cast judgment on women—as being inferior, frail, or less able—that their misconceptions are just as incorrect. If bike polo became segregated, we would fail to enforce these lessons that society as a whole is still struggling to embrace. Even as a tough, strong woman, without bike polo I wouldn't be so convicted of my equality. This certainty empowers me to be bold in other areas of my life and equips me with a way to demonstrate the equal abilities of the female contingent of society.
      And while we can at least agree that we all want to play together, the line between sexism and sexual awareness remains quite fuzzy. Some women, like Livingston, refuse to attend the women’s tournament, arguing that it legitimizes segregation. Others, like George, have gone on record to say that they don’t mind hearing guys scream “show me your tits” during a game—it’s just heckling, right?
      The highlight reel for the 2011 Ladies Army tournament is set to Ludacris’s “My Chick Bad”: “My chick do stuff that your chick wish she could.” Okay, sure, that could reasonably apply to athletic ability, but what about later on in the song, when Luda raps “She slides down the pole like a certified stripper?” At least guest rapper and celebrated honey badger Nicki Minaj gives a nod to Lisa Leslie in her verse.

Photos by Brad Ellman, Jon Azim Lake and Krista Carlson

Krista reports on urban cycling for Urban Velo, and rambles on about life at

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