Sat, Apr 02, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Segway polo? What's next?

For some Californian innovators playing polo on a Segway is just like the real thing "but without the manure"

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SANTA CLARA, CALOIFORNIA

Bay Area Segway enthusiasts gather to play polo, of a sort, in Sunnyvale, California.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

When Alex Ko and his companions took up polo, they made some subtle changes to the sport once enjoyed by ancient Mongol warriors, who are said to have played with the severed heads of their enemies.

Ko and his friends opted for a 15cm-diameter Nerf ball.

And instead of horses, they chose to ride Segways, the self-balancing transportation devices first developed as a short-distance alternative to the automobile.

"It's similar to real polo," Ko said, "but without the manure."

He was standing in the thick grass of Ponderosa Park, a shaggy patch of green in Sunnyvale, California, preparing to compete in a game that replaces the thundering of hooves with the whir of battery-run machines.

On the first and third Sunday of every month, Ko, 34, a mechanical engineer from nearby Santa Clara, organizes Segway polo matches with friends and colleagues, most of whom work in Silicon Valley, and all of whom belong to the Bay Area Segway Enthusiasts Group.

Their matches have some of the trappings of traditional polo. Players wear jerseys -- actually, colored T-shirts -- and use mallets to knock a ball into a goal. Score is kept. And there is an umpire, although players feel free to ignore his calls.

"There are a few guys who take it seriously, but mostly this is a big goof," said Jon Bauer, 37, of San Francisco.

A recent contest pitted four against four. Bauer's team wore blue T-shirts. Ko's team wore yellow and included Stephen Wozniak, one of the founders of Apple Computer and the owner of seven Segways. He is respected, if not feared, on the polo field for his aggressive play.

"My swing feels off," Wozniak said just before the match began. He whirled his right arm in a windmill motion and said that he was operating on virtually no sleep, having stayed up at a party and then to watch a movie until 8:30 that morning.

The teams lined up on opposite sides of the field and rushed toward each other when the umpire rolled the ball between them.

At first glance, Segways could be mistaken for large push mowers, and in the early going, as the players found their rhythm on the grass, the game resembled a frenzied act of landscaping. But near the end of the first period, or chukker, in polo parlance, both teams showed signs of organization, even fleeting hints of skill.

"You should have seen us at some of the first games," Bauer said. "We were all bunched together. Not much passing. Very little strategy."

Like the birth of polo, placed variously in Persia or India more than 2,000 years ago, the genesis of Segway polo is hard to pin down. Ko traces his own interest in it to the fall of 2003, when a Segway polo demonstration was staged during halftime of a professional football game.

"I didn't see it," Ko said of the halftime show. "But it sounded pretty cool."

Jonathan van Clute, a real estate and stock investor from Sunnyvale, said he had stumbled onto the idea even earlier, while consulting at a software company. "I brought my Segway into the office so everyone could goof around with it," he said. "And this one guy pokes his head through the door and says, `Dude, two words: Segway polo."'

Whatever the case, in April of last year, Ko and van Clute met at Ponderosa Park and began to tinker with their version of the game. Ko fashioned a mallet out of plastic pipe. They tried different types of balls before settling on a Nerf. They adopted rules from polo, water polo, and bicycle polo, another contemporary offshoot. They outlawed high-sticking, or the polo equivalent of it, and agreed to run their Segways on the yellow-key setting -- one of three settings on a Segway -- limiting the top speed to 13kph an hour.

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