As patron of the Coca-Cola polo team, Gillian Johnston is carrying on a long family tradition. Back in Wellington this winter, she is looking forward to the 2018 high-goal season at the International Polo Club Palm Beach.
The team is named after the family business. Johnston’s great-grandfather got the first Coca-Cola bottling license back in 1899, and her father inherited the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based franchise and turned it into the largest independent Coke bottler in the world.
Johnston, like most polo players, lives a gypsy lifestyle. After spending four months in Wellington, Johnston heads to the Flying H Ranch in Big Horn, Wyoming. She also spends time at Bendabout Farm, outside of Chattanooga, where she grew up and the family has hosted polo tournaments and exhibition matches for charity since the early 1970s.
Her grandfather played polo, and her father is a former high-goal player — and one of the last to play left-handed. Beginning in 1974, all new players were required to play right-handed for safety.
Coca-Cola won the 26-goal U.S. Open Polo Championship in 2002, making Johnston the second woman to win the most prestigious polo title outside of Argentina, following the late Sunny Hale, who first accomplished the feat in 2000. Johnston has won dozens of titles throughout her career — including the 20-goal Ylvisaker Cup three times in the last five years (2017, 2015 and 2013), and reached the U.S. Open semifinals in 2015 and 2013, and the 26-goal USPA Gold Cup final last year.
Johnston said the U.S. Open championship is the highlight of her career, although she quickly added that winning the season-ending Don King Days tournament seven times at the Big Horn Polo Club ranks up there as well. “It’s a fun, competitive tournament,” she said.
Johnston, who carries a 2-goal handicap, is focused on the upcoming season with simple goals.
“To win a few tournaments would be nice,” she said prior to a recent practice in Wellington. “I’m not doing the 26-goal [tournaments, including the U.S. Open] this year, so, hopefully, we can win some 20 goals.”
This year’s 20-goal Coca-Cola team features 8-goaler Julio Arellano, the highest-rated American player, and crowd favorite Sugar Erskine, who is returning after a year’s absence due to an injury. Steve Krueger rounds out the team.
Arellano, who grew up in Wellington, has anchored Johnston’s teams for the last 10 years.
“She’s a great No. 1, a hidden talent on the team,” said Arellano, who usually wears the red-and-white No. 3 jersey. “She always seems to get that goal when we need it. She’s good under pressure. She knows her placement on the field, and knows where to be, which makes my job easier.”
Johnston also has played in a few women’s tournaments with Arellano’s 13-year-old daughter, Hope.
“She [Johnston] never liked playing in women’s tournaments,” Arellano said. “This past year, because of Hope, she played tournaments in California and the Villages, and won both. She also played in the 6-goal tournament with all three of my kids at Grand Champions. She’s like a big sister to them.”
Johnston’s doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer, instead heaping praise on the late Sunny Hale for that honor. But young girls do come up to her and talk polo.
“I think it’s awesome,” Johnston said. “Women’s polo has really improved. I’m impressed.”
Off the field, Johnston has many talents.
One is photography, something she began experimenting with while in high school. She is often seen at polo matches on the backfields at IPC taking pictures of the action. But she doesn’t just take pictures of polo action. Her family and friends are subjects, and her nature shots are gorgeous.
“I just do it for fun,” said Johnston, who doesn’t have any of her own photos hanging on the walls of her barn or house. “I shoot anything and everything. Basically, they just go on Facebook.”
Photography isn’t her only passion away from the field.
“I’m pretty crafty; I crochet and knit, and I like to cook,” Johnston said. “And turn wood. And hunting and fishing. I have lots of hobbies. I just bought a cutting horse, so I might do that.”
With all her hobbies, it is her love of animals that is legendary within the polo community.
“I always had dogs and cats, donkeys and pigs,” said Johnston, who is currently a little low, as she is traveling with three dogs and two cats, including a Sphynx, which is hairless. “I do collect a lot of animals.”
The latest addition to her animal kingdom is mini horses.
“I bought those for my nieces and nephews,” said Johnston, who loves when all the kids ride the ponies.
Boone Stribling has worked for the Johnston family for the last 26 years, and remembers when Johnston had two horses and was just stick-and-balling. He isn’t surprised at all of her animals. “She loves her menagerie, as her father calls it,” Stribling said.
Johnston has a minivan she loves calling “the mothership,” which hauls her animals around.
“You see that how she loves her animals,” said Arellano, who has gifted Johnston with several, including a pig. “She’s a wonderful person, very giving, very kind. Yeah, she might be a little bit shy. My kids, all the kids, love her.”
During the winter season in Wellington, Johnston is focused on polo. Typically, if she’s not playing or practicing, she is riding singles or taking out sets, and watching polo matches.
When the sun goes down and the horses are settled in, it’s dinnertime.
“I go out to dinner a lot,” admitted Johnston, who said she often goes to Whole Foods for their buffet. But her favorite is the buffet at the Wycliffe Golf & Country Club, where she joins fellow polo players and good friends, Jeff and Tom Blake.
In addition to her hobbies, she takes time to give back to the community.
When asked, Johnston usually says yes to helping local charities, including the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center, where she has been a judge for their annual “Buck Off” competition the last two years.
“I’ll jump in and try to help,” Johnston said. “Vinceremos is great. I like supporting them.”