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Matt Collins and Kylie Sheehan swing into action with U.S. Polo Association

Matt Collins was perspiring heavily.

The 19-year-old Friends alumnus said he doesn't usually get nervous playing polo, but, on the first day of a February training session in West Palm Beach, Fla., the thought of riding in front of the country's best players was intimidating.

"Owen Rinehart and Nick Snow, they were all just sort of watching us, just criticizing everything we're doing. I was like sweating and shaking. Once I got out there, it was fun, though."

That was Collins' first experience as a member of the United States Polo Association's development team.

"It was a pretty intense first day," he said.

In November, Collins and Garrison Forest alumna Kylie Sheehan were among eight people out of 75 applicants to make the team, identifying them as two of the top young polo players in the country.

"It was a pretty long selection process," said Collins, a rising junior at Bowdoin. "To make the team was amazing. The resources and instruction is unbelievable."

The Marylanders will get plenty more of it next month when they head to the Flying H. Polo Club in Sheridan, Wyo., for a monthlong session of preparation and training with other top players.

The opportunity grew out of years of preparation.

Collins was raised in Reisterstown, and began trail riding on farms as a child. In fifth grade he heard about a polo clinic at Garrison Forest in Owings Mills, and that piqued his interest.

"The two things I love to do, I love team sports and I love to ride," he said. "As I got more into it, it's such a thrill. It feels literally like you're flying. It's probably one of the most amazing feelings of any sport."

Collins eventually played arena polo for a local interscholastic team in high school and traveled to the University of Virginia for regional tournaments. And though he continued playing other sports in high school and college, Collins says polo has "slowly crept more and more into my life."

Last August he decided to see how far he could go, and applied for the national development team.

The U.S. Polo Association selected him, and in February he was invited to train with the national team at the four-day clinic in West Palm Beach.

"I couldn't be happier with how it went," Collins said of the training session, despite his nerves at the beginning. "It was such a positive experience for me. It gave me a chance to get better."

Kris Bowman, director of operations for USPA, said what attracted the team to Collins was his leadership and potential.

"Matt had less experience traveling," Bowman said. "He showed a lot of talent and had not had much outside assistance. A lot of it had to do with his potential."

Sheehan, who just completed her senior year as captain of the Virginia polo team, was the only female member selected by USPA.

She's thrilled by the chance to compete at the sport's highest level.

"It is the biggest opportunity for kids our age" Sheehan said. "It's a pretty unusual thing to get under the eyes of the best players of the world."

Bowman said the sport's lack of exposure makes it important that players selected for the development program show exemplary leadership skills.

"We have really handpicked the top kids, so not only are they athletes, they're role models," she said. "They're leaders off the field as well as on the field, and that's what it's going to take to maintain and grow this sport."

Polo enjoys just a shell of its former popularity, as the move away from cavalry armies and horses and carriages has lessened its relevance to large segments of Americans.

Fewer than 300 students play the sport in college, according to USPA.

"It's just not something most people are exposed to," Sheehan said.

Some people Sheehan has told about her sport get confused.

"Some people are like, 'Oh, water polo!' Then I tell them it involves horses. There's a lot of curiosity," she said. "People ask if it is as preppy a sport as people make it out to be, but I make sure I tell them that's definitely not the case. The programs I've been involved in work to include anyone who wants to get involved."

The sport is still alive in part because of programs like that at Garrison Forest.

The school's facilities include the 100-foot-by-200-foot indoor polo arena, a 30-acre field and two fully furnished barns complete with horse stalls, changing rooms and bathrooms.

"It's pretty well known if you're bringing in a kid from the Baltimore area that he or she knows what they're doing," said Nik Feldman, a Cornell captain and Gilman alumnus who played with Sheehan on a U.S. team that faced Great Britain in a college match in January in Indio, Calif. "What Baltimore is able to provide is really just excellent training and programs for players wanting to do the arena game."

Collins says he's thrilled by the level he's reached in the sport but hasn't decided how far he'll follow his passion.

Sheehan's long-term goals are more set.

"Looking into the future, there's a lot of opportunities on the business side," she said. "I'm hoping to keep it in my life as long as I can."

For now though, the pair are just happy to play and promote the sport they love.

"It's amazing being a representative of the sport of polo," Collins said. "Polo's not huge [in Maryland], but there's just a bunch of people who love to play. There's a following, and a lot of young people playing in Baltimore. And that's really exciting."

sisrael@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Lofthus contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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