COLUMBIA — Bruises run down Katherine Wilcox's body. They briefly break up around the tattoo on her left hip of a black-haired woman wearing a red headscarf with the words CoMo Polo tattooed underneath.
The bruises are from a coed bike polo tournament in Memphis, Tenn., that Wilcox competed in with her teammates Aimee Cunningham and Colleen Blake at the end of September.
The women — who have played together since 2009 — are three of the five female members of CoMo Polo, Columbia's informal bike polo club that has 15 regular members. Hardcourt bike polo has been a growing subculture since it started in Seattle in the early 1990s. Although women have played since the sport's inception, they are still a minority on the court.
'You learn much quicker'
CoMo Polo plays pick-up games on Wednesday nights on the roof of the Hitt Street Garage and on Sunday afternoons at a hockey rink in the back of Cosmopolitan Park.
Games of hardcourt polo start after a player shouts "3-2-1, polo!" Two teams of three players use homemade mallets (constructed out of sawed-off ski poles drilled into high-density plastic gas piping) to hit rubber floor-hockey balls into goals. In Columbia, there are few rules, except feet must remain on the bikes and mallets should be kept below a player's shoulders. They play until one team reaches five points.
The women first learned about CoMo Polo in August 2009 after hearing about it through their boyfriends, who were in the club. They watched CoMo Polo play for the first few weeks but were soon invited to join their games, Cunningham, 25, said.
They were initially daunted by how the men played.
"It can get really physical," Wilcox said. "It's intimidating when mostly men play, but I had a couple girlfriends involved."
Cunningham and her friends had been playing bike polo on their own, but practicing with the men helped them improve their skills.
"You learn much quicker because they're riding faster," she said.
Some women preferred when the sport was more recreational, though. Eight women tried bike polo in Columbia but when they started playing as intensely as the men, numbers dwindled. The group shrunk in 2009 and 2010 as women moved away or found polo too competitive, Cunningham said.
Polo 'challenges' cultural ideas
Although most games only result in bruises, most CoMo players sport battle scars due to collisions with mallets, walls or each other. Cunningham and Wilcox both count broken bones as their worst injuries in three years of play. Wilcox biked into a wall and chipped her tailbone in the fall. A run in with a back wheel cracked Cunningham's elbow and broke her wrist. A rib injury sustained in the Memphis tournament from falling over the board is keeping Blake off the court. She said the injury makes it painful to grasp the handlebars of her bike.
Krista Carlson, a member of L.A. Bike Polo in Los Angeles who was a speaker at the 2012 National Women's Bike Summit, said some women are afraid of playing bike polo because they worry they'll get hurt.
"There is this cultural idea that is subconsciously embedded in people that girls are fragile, not as strong or not as fast as men," Carlson said. "Polo gets to challenge that for everyone."
Blake, Cunningham and Wilcox attended an all-female bike polo tournament for the first time this year in Lexington, Ky.
The tournament, called Ladies Army, was started by Lisa Moffatt, a member of East Van Bike Polo in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Moffatt's club hosted the first Ladies Army in 2009 to encourage women to play the sport.
"We had a solid group of women playing here, so we thought, 'What a great place to get other women to play it than here,'" Moffatt said. "Ladies Army turned out to be an introduction to bike polo to more women."
Over the past four years, the size of the tournament has nearly tripled from the nine teams it began with, Moffatt said. The most recent tournament hosted players who traveled all the way from Japan, Switzerland, Poland, Germany and the U.K.
"When you get a group of girls together, you'd expect a weird catty atmosphere, but it's the best tournament I've ever been to," Blake said. She attributes this to the encouraging atmosphere at the tournament.
The female competitors at the tournament didn't hold back physically, Wilcox said.
"It was tough but never nasty," she said.
Back on the Columbia court
Cunningham was the only female member of CoMo Polo at a recent Wednesday night practice on the roof of Hitt Street Garage. Despite the chill in the October air, she took off her red hoodie, grabbed her new extra long mallet and wheeled her old black Schwinn onto the court. The bike is small, but Cunningham's presence on the court was large. She often acted as goalie for her team.
The women on the team are known for their strong defense — not just at home but also at tournaments, Blake said.
"Soon, we'll be a female team to contend with."
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