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College Sports: Finksburg native Grace Fulton embracing recent success in polo at USC Aiken

Grace Fulton said she learned how to ride horses before she could even walk, and the lifestyle is all she’s ever known.

Fulton, a Finksburg native, attends University of South Carolina Aiken and competes on the women’s polo team. The team, made up of Fulton and schoolmates Amanda Fisher and Jessica Wymbs, played their first game at the New Bridge Polo and Country Club in November against Aiken Youth Polo, and a second game against Emory University.

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The Pacers won their inaugural contest 4-3, and defeated Emory University 12-6.

“We were happy to have fun and winning was a bonus,” Fulton said. “Our coach kind of let us go in just to have fun and we kept low expectations. We were super thrilled coming away from it and we weren’t sure how it was going to go against both teams we faced.”

Polo is a game played on horseback between two teams of players who use mallets with long, flexible handles to drive a wooden ball down a grass field and between two goal posts. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls it the oldest of equestrian sports.

The USC Aiken Polo Team is coached by Tiger Kneece, a local polo professional who manages and operates Aiken Youth Polo with his wife Susie. The team is open to men and women of all levels of riders and players and they compete in the United States Polo Association’s Intercollegiate Tournaments against other universities.

Kneece provides horses for the team members to use and they practice and play in an outdoor arena at New Bridge Polo and Country Club. Fulton said the girls practice once or twice a week depending on their schedules.

“I think we all know we still have a lot of improving to do, but we’re all really excited for this semester and the games we have coming up,” Fulton said. “I hope it will be a draw for people in the future to come to USC Aiken if they’re interested in playing collegiate polo, we have the team for it.”

USC Aiken fielded intercollegiate polo teams before, Fulton said, and the men’s polo team was re-ignited last winter with Kneece at the helm.

The teams consist of three players instead of four in regulation polo and they play four seven-and-a-half minute chukkers, or periods, instead of six. Fulton said the teams switch horses between chukkers to get exposed to different horses.

Fulton said the idea of rebooting a women’s polo team was something she and Fisher brainstormed, and it quickly took flight to become something more. Horseback riding was already second nature to her, so why not take it to another level?

“It ended up being a lot of fun, so we stuck with it,” Fulton said. “I was not expecting to do that this semester, so it was a welcome surprise.”

Polo is the first team equestrian sport Fulton has ever experienced, and she said transitioning from the individual aspect of horseback riding to a team atmosphere was a big adjustment she had to make.

The more time she spend around polo — practicing and competing — the more she fell in love with it.

“There are games all over the country, indoor and outdoor, and you can really get a feel for it if you go to a match,” Fulton said. “It’s pretty easy to get involved and excited about it if you experience it firsthand.

“Not everyone has the opportunity of a great coach with a lesson program and horses for us to borrow. Even if it’s just getting involved by watching a match, you get [something] away from it, for sure.”

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