If you don’t have the small fortune it requires to play polo but do have the urge to compete, then you’re in luck. But leave the horse tied up in the barn and don’t forget your bike if you want to play this sport of kings.
Since 2009, members of the Scary Larry Kansas Bike Polo club have been running their thoroughbreds, which often come in the form of free-wheel bicycles, in a hybrid version of one of the world’s oldest games popularized and played by the wealthy elite, then adapted by Seattle bike messengers in the late 1990s.
The speed of bike polo, which is played three-on-three, can alternate from a slow, calculated passing game to a tenacious all-out sprint in a hurry. In a blink of an eye, a mallet is raised and a line-drive shot is sent screaming toward the opposing team’s goal, or possibly the tender spot on the back of an unlucky teammate’s thigh.
“In a competitive arena it’s full contact. Out here, we’re really chill,” said Malakai Edison, one of the Scary Larry founders who displays his commitment to the sport with a tattoo of two intersecting polo mallets on his left cheek.
The vast majority of people know how to ride a bike and most could swing a mallet. So when the action is moving directionally, the sport looks doable to a first-timer. However, unlike most other sports, the slower the game, the trickier it can be for someone without sharp cycling skills when you consider that one of the foremost rules of bike polo is that competitors are not allowed to have their feet touch the ground. The balancing act can take a physical toll the same as all the hard pedaling.
But don’t let this discourage you from giving it a try. Members of the group, which tries to play three nights a week with attendance ranging from six to 10 competitors, applaud the sport for its inclusiveness and say that they are always looking for new people.
“We have a 12-year-old that plays. He’d been watching us play for three years. He was always asking us to play, and I told him he had to get bigger,” Edison said of Tyler Crain, who is among the youngest of the regulars. “It’s an alternative sport where you can be just as competitive, but it’s not like being on the football team. Then at the same time, we have guys that used to play football and they’re getting older and they’re like, ‘This is cool, I’m going to play too.’”
Another founding member, Peter Lewis, who is a mathematics doctoral candidate at Kansas University, welcomes the game as an outlet for unwinding each week.
“I was here day one for polo,” Lewis said. “I love and hate what I do as a math PhD student. Sometimes it’s really fulfilling to just be in my office and figure something out, but coming out here, it’s great because you can just unwind, work out, play (and) have fun.”
On one Thursday night in August, husband and wife Spencer and Ali Sward take turns playing while the other watches over their 18-month-old son, Desmond, who toddles around the nearby bleachers hoisting polo mallets in both hands.
The couple met playing bike polo in 2010, got married on the court and even played bike polo at their wedding, according to Ali.
“I spent about $1,000 on a new bike and then found out I was pregnant with [Desmond],” Ali said with a laugh.
Originally, longtime polo players say that their games were cobbled together in local parking garages and for a brief stint on the tennis and basketball courts at Veterans Park, 19th and Louisiana streets. In 2010, after some tennis players raised concerns, Scary Larry members say they were contacted by city officials and asked to play elsewhere.
“We started looking at ‘forgotten’ parks, and they showed us a few parks and they happened to show us Edgewood,” Edison said.
Edgewood Park, which is at the intersection of Maple Lane and Miller Drive in the Brook Creek neighborhood of East Lawrence, is 16 acres of largely open field, minus the basketball court and jungle gym area, and is on the darker side as far as park lighting is concerned.
Around the exterior of the basketball court at Edgewood, which the Scary Larry folks have been using for bike polo, are 31 waste-high, large concrete barriers that city workers delivered at a cost to the group to form the exterior of the rink in order to keep the ball in play.
“They actually brought us out some picnic tables and they brought out these bleachers for us,” said Edison, who speaks highly of the city’s willingness to work with the group. “They put [in] a grill for us and they put up the barriers and really left it up to us to do everything else.”
“The city benefited from moving us out of where people wanted to be and having us put the lights on, be a positive activity going on in [Edgewood],” Edison said.
As for being welcomed by the Brook Creek neighborhood?
“The neighborhood loves us here,” Lewis said. “You know, this isn’t the safest of parks at night, but if we’re here at night, we have the lights on. There have been people who have told us that they feel safer walking through this park at night when we’re here.”
Anyone interested in playing can contact the group through its website at www.scarylarrykbp.org.
— by Nick Krug