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MARISA TANNER: ON THE FRONT LINES OF MILITARY POLO

May 13, 2022 8:54 PM

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Instrumental in reestablishing military polo within the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Colonel Marisa Tanner, U.S. Army (Retired) has made a significant impact on polo globally as an ambassador within the military community both at home and abroad. Recognized for her many contributions to the USPA Armed Forces Committee from recruitment efforts to clinic instruction, Tanner became the first woman honored with the General George S. Patton Jr. award which she will receive in fall 2022. The national award is presented to the USPA member who has gone above the call of duty to create opportunities for military members and their families to become involved in the sport of polo.

“Involving much of the same mental strategy used in the military, Tanner believes polo and the military are a perfect pair, engaging and stimulating for all branches and service members.”

Born into a military family, Tanner enlisted in the Army on a dare from her friends in ROTC while attending Goldey-Beacom College in Wilmington, Delaware. Earning her Bachelor’s degree in Business in the early 80s, the distinguished ROTC military graduate embarked on a career as a Military Intelligence Officer, completing her Master’s in Strategic Intelligence and serving two combat tours: Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan. Awarded two Bronze Star Medals, a decoration awarded for heroic achievement or service in a combat zone, Tanner rose through the ranks to Colonel and was also a U.S. Army Airbourne Jump Master paratrooper.

Born into a military family, Tanner was drawn to polo driving by a match in 1993.
Born into a military family, Tanner was drawn to polo driving by a match in 1993.

Discovering polo by chance in 1993, Tanner was immediately drawn to the game while driving by a U.S. versus India military match played at U.S. Army Fort Belvoir in Virginia. “I immediately pumped on my brakes, pulled up to the field and asked, ‘who do I need to talk to?’” Tanner commented. “They told me, ‘Mark Gillespie.’” Tanner took her first lessons from Gillespie (current USPA Armed Forces Committee Chair) and although her progress on the field was cut short by a deployment, her brief experience served as the catalyst for reigniting military polo in war-torn Iraq.

Hoping to re-establish the popular Iraqi sport as a way of uniting the people, Tanner was tasked with beginning the process of stability operations and ultimately assisted in bringing an all-Iraqi military polo team to Berlin, Germany, in 2008 to compete in an international “Polo for Peace” tournament on United Nations’ Peace Day (September 21).

Army Polo Team - Col. Marisa Tanner, USA (ret.), former Sergeant Paul Knapp, USA, Major Mark Gillespie, USA (ret.), Captain Terrence Donahue, USAR, Col. Steve Walsh, USMC (ret.)
Army Polo Team - Col. Marisa Tanner, USA (ret.), former Sergeant Paul Knapp, USA, Major Mark Gillespie, USA (ret.), and Captain Terrence Donahue, USAR. Presented by Col. Steve Walsh, USMC (ret.)

Despite her sporadic involvement with the sport in her active-duty years, Tanner has made an effort to organize and participate in military polo tournaments in several states including Texas, New Mexico and California as well as international matches overseas. A member of the USPA for 15 years, Tanner played in the International Military Polo Demonstration Match at the 2010 Washington International Horse Show and went on to win the 2016 National Inter-Service Championship, now known as the National Arena Commander-in-Chief Cup. Tanner has also shared her accumulated knowledge as a polo instructor at numerous military polo clinics across the country.

As the one who introduced Tanner to the sport, Gillespie has seen her evolve over the years into a strong presence in the military polo community. “I have watched Marisa grow from a novice polo player to a skilled polo instructor focused on helping military personnel discover the game,” Gillespie shared.

Army Polo Club President and USPA Armed Forces Committee Chair Mark Gillespie and Col. Marisa Tanner, USA (ret.) coordinating a military polo tournament for charity in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Army Polo Club President and USPA Armed Forces Committee Chair Mark Gillespie and Col. Marisa Tanner, USA (ret.) coordinating a military polo tournament for charity in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

“I get joy from seeing players who just happen to be in the military really become hooked on the sport like I did.”  – Marisa Tanner

Involving much of the same mental strategy used in the military, Tanner believes polo and the military are a perfect pair, engaging and stimulating for all branches and service members. “If you hyper-focus on the ball that will limit you in terms of ability and it’s the same with military intelligence,” Tanner revealed. “You don't want to just look at where the enemy is, you want to see where they are they going next, what their strengths and weaknesses are and the forces needed to counter and minimize that. It's the same thing when playing polo, you want to have situational awareness and project where the ball is going next. Who's the strongest player? Do your opponents work as a team or is it just one player hitting the ball? Do they have a strategy? Your job is to exploit that or counter it in some way.” Strategizing to grow military polo despite the inherent challenges, Tanner has continued to assist in the development of measurable metrics for the Armed Forces Committee recruitment program.

Col. Marisa Tanner, USA (ret.) instructs a member of the US Army's Old Guard.
Col. Marisa Tanner, USA (ret.) instructs a member of the U.S. Army's Old Guard.

Recently retired and settled in Virginia Beach, Tanner is looking forward to having more uninterrupted time to dedicate to polo and stand in as a representative in the sport for women service members. “I’m already recruiting and teaching lessons at barns nearby, it’s always about recruitment,” Tanner said. “I’m definitely going to get involved with Virginia Beach Polo Club [Virginia Beach, Virginia] for sure by next summer and start playing polo again. I get joy from seeing players who just happen to be in the military really become hooked on the sport like I did.”

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