Tabitha Orthwein cannot believe she won't get to play polo with the legendary Sunny Hale again this summer. Recalling a quick speech delivered last July, however, brought a big smile.
It was those two and another 40-something woman on their horses in Saratoga Springs, along with a teenager recruited by Hale, to face a group of accomplished men.
"All right, girls," was Hale's message, "Let's go out there and kick ass."
That was Hale in all her pioneering, marketing, inspiring, wall-busting, visionary glory. Give the game plan. Get the most out of her teammates. She was Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, Geno Auriemma and D. Wayne Lukas rolled into one.
The Saratoga polo community is still coming to grips with losing one of the greatest athletes perhaps you've never heard of at age 48.
"Oh, yes, she was a badass," Orthwein said, breaking her biggest smile while talking about Hale, who died on Sunday in Norman, Okla. "Gritty. Definitely very real. No pretensions, and always classy. Just a remarkable woman."
It boggles many minds around Saratoga that someone who looked so full of life, tanned, happy traveling the world to be a hired polo gun — she was in Thailand in January — could have died due to complications from an aggressive lung cancer.
Sunny's given name was actually Sunset. Right now Jim Rossi, managing partner at the Saratoga Polo Association, is trying to figure out how to appropriately honor a globe-trotting maverick who transcended the sport on sheer determination. Someone who could easily be chatted up at a grounds tent or parking lot.
Rossi said Hale was scheduled to spend a couple of weeks in Saratoga again this summer.
The first woman in polo history to win the U.S. Open had also become the first woman to achieve a 5-goal handicap rating. Polo players are rated on a scale of minus-2 to 10. (This number reflects a player's overall value to their team.) Two-thirds of U.S. players are rated below a 3.
Hale came by the sport quite naturally. Her mother, Sue Sally Hale, made history by playing in a boys' tournament in 1972.
Legend has it that the mother and daughter grew distant over time, their rift caused by polo intensity.
But if that was the case, Hale was not bitter in her pursuits of excellence and ambassadorship.
A humble teacher, said local polo parent Kate Veitch, "Sunny was someone who went right up to kids. She wanted to empower them, educate them about the sport and teach them to make life an adventure."
Hale's own journey was deeper than scores. She also grew the sport by developing a rating system for women at all levels, and also created the American Polo Horse Association for horses' pedigrees to be tracked.
Her fans and many acquaintances, many through social media eulogies, are still trying to piece together Hale's final weeks.
Rossi wonders if the recent string of speaking engagements and another published book were coincidence, or if "she just wanted to make sure she left that body of work behind, in addition to everything else she contributed to the sport."
Adam Snow, an American polo legend, praises her "intense commitment" to her horses and the sport, while maintaining a universal affection.
He told the Times Union on Tuesday from South Carolina that a slew of calls have helped him connect some pieces — it appears Hale had moved to the Miami area recently for treatment, even as most never knew she was ill.
In recent years, Hale apparently didn't even own her own polo horses. She simply borrowed ones wherever she had been brought in as a ringer. She could adjust that fast to her ride, which is rare for men or women.
Those kinds of stories, around her world travels, are what admirers will miss.
Sabine Rodgers, who owns Saratoga Saddlery on Broadway, laments not finding time recently to return an email.
Hale was supposed to attend a grand opening at Rodgers' new store in Florida. Hale ultimately declined on short notice through a rare email.
Rodgers couldn't believe the initial Facebook posts late last weekend were ultimately true. Now, she especially cherishes a picture with an idol. Rodgers is holding open one of Hale's books that has been marked by a swath of highliter lines.
"Sunny instills confidence in you," Rodgers said. "She makes you feel that you can do it. There's a confidence she represents, and you can't help but feel it when you are around her. I still honestly can't believe it. She was strong and powerful with an iron will."
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