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VINNY SANGALINE: "EL GATO" LANDS A SPOT IN THE U.S. OPEN POLO CHAMPIONSHIP

Apr 12, 2022 10:01 PM

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Aspen Valley's Sangaline in the U.S. Open Polo Championship. ©David Lominska
Aspen Valley's Sangaline in the U.S. Open Polo Championship. ©David Lominska

Visualizing himself on high-goal fields from the moment he picked up a mallet at Colorado State University’s (CSU) arena, Vincenzo “Vinny” Sangaline continues to experience a surreal moment every time he suits up to play in the U.S. Open Polo Championship. Building a solid foundation in foxhunting and show jumping, the Denver native discovered not only a newfound passion in equestrian sport through intercollegiate polo, but also gained a supportive and inclusive community of allies. As part of a tight-knit family, it was not long before Sangaline’s parents were inspired to join their son in his newest pursuit, initiating a chain reaction that would result in all four of his siblings learning to play. Earning a degree in geology and working in energy, Sangaline is also a passionate environmentalist, enjoying the flexibility to work and play simultaneously.

Finding himself on Aspen Valley Polo Club’s roster by the invitation of Melissa Ganzi, the 26-year-old has been pleasantly surprised (and continually humbled) for the opportunity to live out his most ambitious polo dream just eight years in. With only a few months to prepare for the most important tournament of his career, Sangaline has found comfort in the challenge surrounded by many familiar faces from Aspen Valley Polo Club where he and his parents regularly play. Making his debut during a historic year for the tournament, it is only fitting that Sangaline would not only represent his club, but the wider LGBTQ+ community as an openly gay athlete himself. A friend to everyone, Sangaline hopes his presence at the highest level of the sport will encourage others to remain true to themselves and also experience acceptance.

“Coming into this tournament has been a bit overwhelming—because it's the U.S. Open Polo Championship! It’s been as easy as it can be to come in though because I know so many great people from Aspen. It's a family and they are definitely very hospitable, so as big as it is, it’s made it very easy for me to just come in and wing it!”  – Vinny Sangaline

Sangaline competing in a 2020 Snow Polo tournament in Aspen, Colorado.
Sangaline competing in a 2020 Snow Polo tournament in Aspen, Colorado.

What is your equestrian background and how were you introduced to polo?

“I started riding horses when I was 14 years old and grew up doing competitive show jumping and foxhunting at the Arapahoe Hunt [in Colorado] with my family. In high school I played every sport; lacrosse, football, soccer and even swimming, but I could never really connect with any of them until I started jumping. I decided I was not going to waste my time with other sports and I was going to stick with horses because clearly that was my personal best.

At the time a show jumper friend of mine, Sierra Dunbar, went to Colorado State University (CSU) and she said, ‘you have to come check out polo, it's so much fun. We have a great men's team up at CSU and you should come check it out.’ I decided to tour the college and meet the men’s team who at the time was Kareem Rosser, Jered Berg, Alexander Kokesh, Andrew Wildermuth and James Dodge. I watched them play against Harvard Polo and they just dominated. After the game I met all the guys and they were just really hounding on me to join the team. I ended up playing I/I [Intercollegiate/Interscholastic] polo my entire undergraduate career [2014-2018] at CSU.”

Vinny on a family vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico  (L to R): Kevin (Dad), Becky (Mom), Mike (Brother), Kinzie (Sister), Vinny, Conner (Brother), Caleigh (Sister-in-Law), KC (Brother).
Vinny on a family vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (L to R): Kevin (Dad), Becky (Mom), Mike (Brother), Kinzie (Sister), Vinny, Conner (Brother), Caleigh (Sister-in-Law), KC (Brother).

How has polo brought your entire family closer together?

“We do things as a family, so when I started playing intercollegiate polo my parents thought it sounded fun so they decided to look for a club and start taking lessons. They found the Denver Polo Club [Sedalia, Colorado] which is only five miles down the road from our ranch. The three of us started playing polo at the same time and now we play at Aspen Valley Polo Club [Carbondale, Colorado] together. Then during the COVID-19 pandemic my four siblings also started to play because we were all quarantined at the ranch. We have an arena and horses in our backyard so I taught all my siblings how to play in the arena. I have two brothers who are really into it now.

Our dinner conversations are really funny because all we talk about is strategy - where can I get some horses? What level should I play? It’s really fun to see my siblings have the same craziness in their eyes like I had when I first started playing. If we're arguing about anything in our family it’s about stuff like ‘you can't ride that horse. You don't ride her the way she needs to be ridden!’”

Where have you played outside of the United States?

“Around the same time I started at CSU, I was also playing at Denver Polo Club during the summers. The club is managed by Mark Wates who is Jamaican and he told me, ‘you have to come spend a season with me in Jamaica. You're going to ride a ton of horses and play a ton of polo.’ Fortunately, I had taken summer classes so I could take the spring semester off my junior year and I agreed to go and work at the Kingston Polo Club. I schooled young horses and rode 20 horses a day—it was just this insane immersion into polo. I played in the Jamaica season for three years and played in Denver during the summers.”

“When I first started playing polo in college, I always had it in my mind that one day I was going to play in the U.S. Open Polo Championship. I never doubted myself for one minute even though I didn’t know how or when it was going to happen. It’s really fun to play against someone like Gillian Johnston who I watched in a game and thought one day I’ll be there playing against Coca-Cola.”

How did you get the opportunity to compete in your first U.S. Open Polo Championship?

“Around the end of November, early December, I was talking to Melissa [Ganzi] on the phone about snow polo and other events and she casually said, ‘Oh by the way, I put you on a U.S. Open team, I hope that’s okay.’ I was like ‘oh my goodness, are you kidding me!? Of course, I'll be there, that’s more than okay!’

I'm very fortunate to represent Aspen Valley Polo Club and I love my team. We're having so much fun out there and we have really good energy and a great support group off the field. All the families are at the tent and everyone's moms are there. We have the best mom cheering section with my mom Becky and Tommy's [Collingwood] mom Teresa—it's hilarious, they are so adorable.”

How familiar are you with your teammates?

“I played with Pablo [Mac Donough] two summers ago and I played with Alejandro [Novillo Astrada] the last two seasons. I’ve played the most with Alejandro and he’s a really good coach and I’d consider him my polo mentor, if I had to choose one. He gets straight to the point, but he is really kind and he knows what I’m capable of. It’s great to have someone on the field who knows your personal best, but on the flip side if you’re not playing well they know you can do much better. Tommy’s also incredible, he’s the bulldog of the team and he’s a big hitter. When I first started playing polo I played with Tommy during the summers in Denver.”

“It's been a lot of fun for me to play at this level, because I wasn't expecting the level of calculation, maneuvering and operations to go into this.”

What is it like to play with 10-goaler Pablo Mac Donough?

“He’s literally Peyton Manning—he’s the quarterback and the coach. We all show up an hour early and he tells each one of us what exactly we need to do. Then throughout the entire game he is very affirming and points us in the right direction. He’s very hands-on, just like a puppet master—he's out there orchestrating the whole thing. With him it's like a chess game out there. He's literally calculating every possible outcome and has a play set for that outcome. It's been a lot of fun for me to play at this level, because I wasn't expecting the level of calculation, maneuvering and operations to go into this.

But he's shown me that's the way you have to play this game. It’s a whole other ball game at the 22-goal level. There’s definitely a higher level of calculation that works in his mind. It's really fun to experience and play with him firsthand.”

2021 Polo Pride Champions: Grand Champions - Juan Bollini, Vincenzo Sangaline, Cale Newman, Sterling Jones.
2021 Polo Pride Champions: Grand Champions - Juan Bollini, Vincenzo Sangaline, Cale Newman, Sterling Jones, presented by celebrity Rebel Wilson.

How has the support you’ve received from the polo community empowered you to become an advocate for LGBTQ+ athletes?

“It hasn’t been an easy experience being gay in athletics, but I've been very fortunate to have a great support group from my CSU polo team. I came out in college and my polo team was actually a huge support system for me through that time. They made it very easy and all my teammates had my back and were super supportive. That's what I really loved about my experience there. Everyone has been super supportive, especially my family.

I just hate to think about anyone else who identifies as an LGBTQ+ person and may not feel welcome or comfortable to be themselves in any sport, but especially in polo. I wouldn't want a young kid, a teenager or even an adult to feel like they can't be themselves. I'm comfortable with sharing my story because I think about all the other people who struggle with it and I don't think they should have to. I'm really happy to do it for that kid who's afraid to tell his friends or teammates. Me being here let’s those kids know that they can do it too, anybody can do it.”

How did you get the nickname "El Gato"?

“I was just starting to play polo, but I was disappointed because I didn't have the funds to sponsor a team in the 12 goal or the horses to play at that level. Then one summer in every 12-goal tournament one team needed a substitute so I got to play the entire 12-goal season at Valiente [in Colorado]. My friend Jorge Donovan gave me the polo nickname ‘El Gato’ [Spanish for cat] because just like when you throw a cat up in the air, they land on their feet, and I ended up getting into polo situations very fortunately.”

Sangaline's first tournament win in the 2018 8-goal Governor's Cup in Denver: Jorge Donovan, “Dad” Kevin Schmeits, Vincenzo Sangaline, Mark Wates.
Sangaline's first tournament win in the 2018 8-goal Governor's Cup in Denver: Jorge Donovan, Kevin Schmeits, Vincenzo Sangaline, Mark Wates.

Tell us more about your love for geology.

“When I was a kid I always collected rocks and loved crystals and buried treasure. From an early age I just always wanted to be a geologist. Growing up I noticed that in every space or science fiction movie there's always a geologist on the team. I wanted to be the one to go to another planet and look at rocks. I love the earth, it was always a very obvious choice for me.

For my capstone course at CSU I spent six weeks traveling around New Mexico and Colorado for a geology field camp. We spent two weeks along the Rio Grande camping and surveying the water from the surrounding mines and living in the desert. It was an interesting experience because you have to shower with a bucket or bathe in the Red River in Rio Grande, New Mexico. There's a lot of inactive volcanoes in that area so I studied all the prehistoric volcanoes out there.”

What are your hobbies outside of polo?

“I love fly fishing and just being in the outdoors. I'm a huge snowboarder and I love hiking, so I really love Colorado for that reason. Horsetooth Rock in Fort Collins is a great place to hike and Red Rocks Amphitheatre is my favorite concert venue in Denver. It was carved out of rock into the side of a mountain—so of course I love it! The outdoors is my true passion and I try to be a big advocate for land conservation, preservation and wildlife—I just love animals.”

“One thing I didn't expect was just the huge sense of community between all the teams. It's been really fun to make a lot of new friends and see a lot of old ones too. I'm just obsessed with Wellington—it's raining horses, polo and show jumping!”

Are you playing your own horses in this tournament?

“My parents lent me six of their horses and our barn manager Damian Belardinelli does an amazing job managing the string. He's more excited than anyone that we’re playing in the U.S. Open Polo Championship—he's ecstatic. It's been fun to see his face when we come off the field with a win—he's in heaven right now.”

Do you have a particular horse that stands out in your string?

“I have a light bay mare that I play in the third and the sixth named Shootout Gal and her sire was a racehorse. We bought her from Mark Wates. She's my only 54 mallet in the string, she's super tall, but I can catch anybody. Nobody's safe when I'm on her—she turns and she stops on a dime. It's really fun to go on a chase with her. I haven't had anybody get away from me yet on her.”

Vincenzo "Vinny" Sangaline can currently be seen competing for Aspen Valley Polo Club in the U.S. Open Polo Championship at International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida. Vincenzo "Vinny" Sangaline can currently be seen competing for Aspen Valley Polo Club in the U.S. Open Polo Championship at International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida.Vincenzo "Vinny" Sangaline can currently be seen competing for Aspen Valley Polo Club in the U.S. Open Polo Championship at International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida. ©David Lominska
Vincenzo "Vinny" Sangaline can currently be seen competing for Aspen Valley Polo Club in the U.S. Open Polo Championship at International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida. ©David Lominska

Do you have any pregame rituals?

“I don't really eat anything day of, I'll just have a hard-boiled egg. Then I just jam out to get more energy. I listen to Lady Gaga or Dua Lipa and I just run around the house rocking out and dancing. Obviously, I stretch, but before games I get my blood flowing with my favorite jams.”

What are your plans after the U.S. Open Polo Championship?

“I’m going to play in the World Polo League Beach Polo in Miami April 28 through May 1 which is always a fun event the weekend after the U.S. Open. Then end of May is Polo Pride which is put on by Melissa Ganzi. We're going to have a huge drag catwalk show on Saturday to benefit charity and a drag brunch during the event on Sunday. We haven’t finalized the charities yet but hopefully it will be the It Gets Better Project, which uplifts and empowers LGBTQ+ youth, and the Elton John AIDS Foundation.”

Sangaline's equestrian journey began with fox hunting at the Arapahoe Hunt in Colorado.
Sangaline's equestrian journey began with fox hunting at the Arapahoe Hunt in Colorado.

What does it mean to you to play in your first U.S. Open Polo Championship?

“I especially want to thank Melissa Ganzi. I would not be here without her and the opportunities she's given me. It's overwhelming how kind and supportive everyone has been with me coming in at 0-goals to this level. One thing I didn't expect was just the huge sense of community between all the teams so it's been really fun to make a lot of new friends and see a lot of old ones too.”

Watch undefeated 3-0 Aspen Valley Polo Club compete for a spot in the semifinals during their quarterfinal matchup on Sunday, April 17, only on Global Polo TV.

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