When Geroge Cole Toomey was 64 years old, his polo pony galloped full speed into another horse and both horses collapsed on him. The collision left him in a coma six weeks, hovering between life and death.
His teammates and fellow players in the Lincoln Mall Polo Club gave him up for dead, pooled their money, organized a match and bought the George Cole Toomey Trophy -- a memorial, they assumed. but appears in person every year to present his trophy.
Not surprisingly, Toomey, now 76, insists polo is the most dangerous and difficult team contact sport in the world. And he wouldn't miss a moment's action.
Every Wednesday and Sunday he is on hand for the 3 p.m. match played on the Lincoln Mall. He arrives in a beige Cadillac with D.C. plates that read POLO.
From the moment he steps on the green, he is greeted "Hello, Mr. Polo!" again and again. He watches intensely as the strong ponies race down the field, turn on a dime and wheel galloping to the other end.
Looking out over wire-rimmed bifocals held together by masking tape, Toomey, a consulting engineer who represented the United States as a member of the decathlon team in the 1924 Olympics, fired up. "That's polo. I played for 40 years, and never got a bump" -- before his 1967 accident, of course.
Toomey is a man full of zest for the game and for life. In 1928 he sailed from Boston to Norway in a 29-foot sailboat to keep a blind date. He is asked whether the 5 1/2 week translantic trip was worth it.
"Yes," he says with a sly smile. "She looked just like one of Charlie's Angels. It was the first time I'd ever seen a girl in a bikini."
Now, as he describes his founding of the 14-year-old Lincoln Mall Polo Club with then-teamate Jack Sted (the current executive director of the organization), Toomey's eyes sparkle. He clearly is pleased at the interest in a sport he loves.
"You know, before the war, General Patton played here," he recalls. "We had a lot of fun. It was the best polo I ever played. It may be rough, but it isn't like soccer. The horses do all the running."
But as the conversation progresses, Toomey, who now walks with a cane, remembers giving away his nine ponies after his injury made it impossible for him to ride again. "It's very discouraging, after spending my whole life riding and sailing," he says wistfully. "At least I can watch."
The season begns in April and continues through November, with a break in August. Teams come from as far away as Cincinnati, Houston and Harrisburg.
Polo has always been considered a game for the well-heeled sportsman. However, Jack Sanders, 50, a surgeon from Great Falls, insists the game suitable is for all kinds of working people.
"Unlike past generations, we all work and earn our plesure. Don't get the idea we are spoiled brats," he says, sipping a bottle of Perrier. "We have a real estate salesman, a stockbroker, a Marine pilot and so on. "As it happens, Sanders maintains a string of "only four" polo ponies on his farm.
Jack Whittemore, 30, the stockbroker in the group, estimates the averge polo pony costs about $4,000. "Top price would be about $15,000," he says.
You can get one just a notch above dog food for $1,000," teammate John Riley, a Marne colonel who stables his four ponies in his backyard in Vienna, adds. One was a gift from a rich uncle, he throws in as an aside.
Each polo player must have at least four hourses. They run about $100 a month to keep in new shoes, hay and oats.
Polo dates back to approximately 600 B.C. in North Persia. The game has eight 7-minute periods, known as chukkers, and each team has four players. A goal is scores by knocking the hard bamboo ball into an 8-yard-wide goal area. Each time a goal is scored, team direction is reversed.
Jim Kincheloe, an attorney from Manassas, recently took up polo and rides for the B and E team in Prnce William County. "It's hard enough to ride, but to coordinate hitting the ball takes a lot of attention," he says. "When you play golf the ball is right in front of you. In polo there are two speeds -- a walk and a gallop."
Many of the players say they inherited a love of the sport from their fathers.
"It's addictive," says Kincheloe, whose father still trains race horses.
The man riding the horse that collided with Toomey's way back when, 67-year-old Edgar E. Staples, still comes from Richmond each week, with his son Phillip and their nine ponies, to play on the Lincoln Mall.
Sweating after a game as if he had just finished the Boston Marathon, Staples, known around the mall as "The Dean of Poloc" discounted anything special about the sport. "It's just something you do," he puffed. "No big deal."