Not Your Daddy's Polo
Capturing the rough-and-tumble of a growing urban sport

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sometimes you find your best stories by chance.

Photographer Jay Premack was driving from the grocery store to his Capitol Hill home late last summer when he spotted a commotion at 13th and D streets SE. Six bicycle-riding players divided into two teams whizzed around a small paved court, chasing a street hockey ball as a rowdy crowd cheered them on. Screech went the tires. Thwack went the mallets.

Bicycle polo takes the traditional sport and swaps the horses and preppy associations for battle-scarred bikes and hockey's rough-and-tumble mentality. Helmets and pads are optional; trash-talking is encouraged. Premack had a camera with him, so he started shooting, trying to stay out of their way. "It can get pretty intense. One guy must have gone down five or six times," he says. The teams are coed, and everyone on the court is fair game. "No one was saying, 'Go easy on her, she's a girl,' " Premack says.

He spent nearly an hour enthralled by the action. Six months later, still fascinated, he headed back to the court. Then he went again. And again. He'd chat up the players, take some pictures, drink in the scene. As a photojournalist (and former Post photo editor), he's more interested in the personalities than the peak moment of action. So he keeps showing up at the Thursday night games, hoping to capture the sport's spirit in an image. "When you see a child playing a game, they're living in the moment; I see some of that when these guys are playing," Premack says. "There's joy, there's excitement. You can get lost in that."

The action on the court might be aggressive, but the mood is collegial. "They keep telling me I have to play. Every time I'm there, it's like, 'Hey man, where's your bike?' " says Premack. "I'm not ready yet, but at some point, I've got to play."

-- Amanda McGrath

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