No horsing around: segway polo in Barbados

What is Segway polo, and how did a makeshift Bajan team become world champs? Austin Fido finds out

Photograph courtesy Segway Polo Club of Barbados

Jason Gilkes did not intend to become a world champion. The Bajan entrepreneur simply wanted to start a business: a Segway-based tour company, providing the opportunity to roam Barbados in unusual fashion. The new venture, Segway Barbados, launched in August 2008. But by early 2009, Gilkes was searching for “something new, something fun” to do with his Segways when they weren’t required for work.

Then he happened upon Segway polo.

For those unfamiliar, a Segway PT (“personal transporter”) is a two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered electric vehicle, devised by the American inventor Dean Kamen. The manufacturer’s literature makes abundant reference to accelerometers, the “Leansteer frame,” and “empowered pedestrians.” Less respectful observers liken the product to a pogo stick on wheels. It will never be mistaken for a horse — more likely a stand-up wheelchair or runaway hat stand.

Nonetheless, Gilkes persuaded a few friends to try playing Segway-mounted polo. They even staged an exhibition game at Apes Hill polo ground. A video of that match made it onto the web, which is why in March 2009 Gilkes received an email from Germany, asking whether he’d be interested in entering a team from Barbados in the Woz Challenge Cup — effectively the world championship of Segway polo. “I asked him if he was crazy,” Gilkes recalls.

Segway polo, as its name implies, borrows heavily from hockey-on-horseback, or “horse polo,” as players of the Segway form of the game refer to their sport’s better-known cousin. Choice of steed notwithstanding, the rules of both games are broadly similar, so much so that — once the organisers’ mental health had been satisfactorily evaluated — the Bajan players arrived at their first World Cup (in Germany) unaware of many of the regulations separating their newfound passion from its namesake. “It was like going there blindfolded,” says Gilkes, remembering his teammates’ reaction to watching their first-round opponents warm up. “We had no idea there was a goalkeeper.”

Perhaps the need for rapid learning — most of the Bajans had been playing Segway polo for only a matter of weeks prior to the trip to Europe — focused the minds of the “Flying Fish,” who beat every opponent they faced in their debut international tournament, winning the world title at the first attempt. “We were as surprised as anybody,” says Gilkes.

In 2010, the Barbados government and Tourism Authority helped the nascent Segway Polo club host the Woz Cup — and the Flying Fish triumphed once again. Since then, Barbados’s representatives have finished second in two of the last three world championships. But the success is incidental. “The whole reason any of this happens is because it’s fun,” says Brett de Gale, a teammate of Gilkes, veteran of four Woz Cups, and forty-four-year-old property manager.

It is for fun, not glory, that the Segway Polo Club of Barbados meets once a week, on Sunday mornings at the University of the West Indies campus in Cave Hill. The club’s priorities for 2014 include hosting an invitational tournament, planned for early May, and preparing for the next tilt at a world title in 2015.

Perhaps foremost, however, is the constant search for players and members. “The door is always open,” says Gilkes, before cautioning potential new recruits that any initiation focuses on Segway riding, not polo. Even its fans concede the device may have an image problem. “It’s impossible to look cool on a Segway,” says de Gale. “The ability to stop is important,” he adds. “Once you can stop, you can play.”