Story and Photos by Julie Unger
Polo is a sport that tends to run in families — large, extended families where grandfathers, fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, uncles and cousins play, or have played, this sport of kings, where horse and rider barrel down the field with mallet in hand to score a goal.
For Wellington’s Bollini family, polo isn’t just a sport, it’s a way of life. It’s part of their culture and part of their family. It isn’t a sport they just play, it is part of who they are.
“It was something that was natural,” Juan Bollini Sr. said. “Polo, for us, I’d say, it’s in our blood.”
In Argentina, polo is a family tradition on Juan Sr.’s mother’s side. He was born in Buenos Aires and spent a lot of time on the family farm playing polo with his uncles and cousins. His professional polo career, however, started later than for most. He attended university, worked at a bank for seven years, and was invited to play polo in the Wellington area in 1985.
“Since then, I have been lucky enough to have a good relationship with the patrons, and I started playing with Rolex and the Oxley family,” he said. “Now I’m with the Ganzis.”
Juan Sr.’s wife, Cecilia, has also taken her turn with the mallet. She competed before their children — Mariana, 26; Juan Jr., 20; and Santos, 17 — were born.
“I love riding, and I love horses,” said Cecilia, who prefers to stay on the sidelines nowadays.
Mariana, who lives and works full-time in Argentina, also played polo for a while before choosing a different direction. Her brothers, however, are thriving in the sport.
Polo players are ranked on a scale from -3 to 10, with few players reaching anywhere near the coveted 10-goal status. Juan Sr., who is currently ranked with a 5-goal handicap, was once ranked at 8 goals. Juan Jr. is already ranked with a 3-goal handicap and considered a professional polo player. Santos, still in high school, isn’t far behind, with a 0-goal handicap.
Juan Jr. was introduced to the sport at a young age thanks to his family when they were living in Argentina. “We would go to the farm on the weekends and play with my cousins, my uncles and my dad,” he recalled. “That’s how I started.”
During breaks from school, Juan Jr. would come to the United States and play in youth polo tournaments. “It’s the part of the family tradition that got me into polo,” he said.
When he isn’t on the polo fields, or at the barn, Juan Jr. is studying international business and trade at Florida Atlantic University. The sport, and his father, have taught him to never give up and play as hard as he can every time he’s on the field. He is applying that same lesson to his education.
Other sports have caught Juan Jr.’s eye, such as tennis and soccer, but polo has always been his top priority.
For Santos, polo is also a way of life.
“It has always been around. It’s just the way I grew up. I love it. It’s the sport that I’ve been practicing my whole life,” he said.
Santos attends Wellington High School and is low-key about his life on the field. Only his close friends know he is an avid polo player.
Perpetuating the family tradition is one of the important aspects of polo for the Bollinis.
“It’s something that the entire family can enjoy, between the being outside, and the horses and the game,” Juan Sr. said. “Polo is such a great sport, because you can play so many different levels. There’s a level for everyone.”
It’s a sport that he can share with his family, playing with his sons and enjoying the beautiful weather that South Florida and Argentina have to offer.
“It’s something that keeps the family together,” Juan Sr. said. “You spend a lot of time in the game. You spend a lot of time in the barn. You talk about it.”
What people often don’t realize, Juan Sr. explained, is that there is a great deal of work that goes on behind the scenes, caring for the horses and working with the horses.
“It’s a passion,” he said. “It’s a way of life.”
Polo is also a sport that keeps families together. There’s a lot of traveling and time spent with other polo families. As a 30-year professional polo player, Juan Sr. is thankful to the Ganzis, who own the Grand Champions Polo Club and the Aspen Valley Polo Club. Through his association with them, he has been able to work, and play, with his sons.
Playing with their father is important to Juan Jr. and Santos.
“Playing with my family is something that few people get to experience, even though it is a family-oriented sport,” Juan Jr. said. “Playing in tournaments and playing competitively with your family, that’s something even greater. That’s something that out of all of the people who play polo, not many of them get to experience, just because of the age difference or the handicap difference. It’s something that you really value when you’re on the field with your brother, or your dad.”
Having a built-in support system is advantageous for players, including for Santos, a rare left-handed player in a sport played with the right hand.
“Playing polo with my dad, with my family, makes it easier for me, for us. Not only do we have a mentor 24/7 at home, even when we’re not on the fields, but also it makes us feel way more comfortable when we are on the field, because it’s your dad and your brother,” Santos said. “You still want to try your hardest, but you’re in a comfortable state where you can perform well.”
With Grand Champions as their home club, the Bollinis are able to play with many different players. “Being part of such a large group, you have a variety of possibilities for teams,” Cecilia said.
She offers her support from the sidelines, juggling a career as a community health worker with her equestrian family life.
“I facilitate workshops for nonprofits to help manage people with chronic conditions, and diabetes, especially the older adults and Hispanics,” Cecilia said. “We’ve been traveling for polo for all our married life, so I’m accustomed to it. It’s a part of our lifestyle.”
For Cecilia and her family, Wellington has always been a comfortable place to be.
“Having come here so many years, now we’re living here, it has always been a very comfortable town to come to as a foreigner,” she said. “We always felt at home.”
Part of that is knowing so many people in the wider polo community.
“The people who live here all year-round are very open and welcoming to those who come seasonally and those who choose to live here year-round,” Cecilia said.