Date: Thursday, October 27, 2022
The United States is hosting the XII World Polo Championship under the Federation of International Polo (FIP) beginning this weekend in Wellington, FL. Eight teams comprised of global zone playoff champions plus the host nation and defending champion will come together from Oct 26-Nov 6 hoping to hoist the FIP World Cup trophy.
The FIP World Polo Championship is held roughly every three years. A U.S. team has won the event only once, in 1989. That team included John Wigdahl, Charlie Bostwick, Julio Arellano and Horton Schwartz. All 4 champions have graced the fields at Newport Polo over the years, Bostwick and Wigdahl as players in the Newport International Polo Series, Schwartz as a professional United States Polo Association umpire and Arellano as a coach in the East Coast Women’s Open.
With the FIP World Polo Championship about to kick off (Arellano serving as the U.S. team coach and his son Agustine and daughter Hope on the team), we caught up with lifetime Newport Polo club member and seasonal instructor, John Wigdahl to relive the glorious feat and career achievement when he scored the winning goal for the U.S. team in Berlin in the 1989 FIP World Polo Championship.
The Cold War was at its height, and Berlin was still divided into East and West by the Potsdam Agreement more than 4 decades after WWII. Hitler’s grandiose and stunning Olympic Stadium stood unscathed from the war, where American Jesse Owens won his historic 4 gold medals in track & field in the 1936 Olympiad, and the last time polo was played in the Olympics, where Britain was annihilated 11-0 by Argentina for the gold medal.
As fate would have it, Britain controlled West Berlin and the Olympic stadium grounds in ‘89, and the British national polo team was victorious in zone playoffs that year to be one of the 8 teams earning a berth at the FIP World Polo Championship taking place in Berlin on the very same Maifield, for a chance to redeem the Olympic defeat, supported by the lion’s share of fans in the imposing 50,000 seat stadium where its army was stationed.
Established in 1982 to promote polo globally and position the sport to be reinstated into the Olympics, the first FIP World Polo Championship was held in Mexico in 1986. The U.S. team was unprepared and lost all its matches in the zone playoffs. Determined to do better in ‘89, a small group of players formed a team selection committee to organize tryouts and raise traveling funds, hoping for better results.
The initial roster with Arellano and Schwartz was in flux leading up to the zone playoffs in Florida, as teammates encountered injuries, horse issues and other eliminating factors. Bostwick and Wigdahl were called upon as replacements. Wigdahl, whose home club was in Chicago, happened to be playing in Florida at the time, and got the invitation just 3 days before the first zone playoff match. The foursome played surprisingly well together, winning 3 out of 4 zone playoff games to advance to the World Championship later that year in Berlin.
In that era, players sourced their own horses to compete in the Championship matches, unlike today’s provision by the host nation of a pool of horses to mount all the teams. The ‘89 team organized air freight shipping of their 24 horses in containers departing from JFK. Four months after their zone playoff wins, Wigdahl trailered his string from Chicago, Schwartz’s string came from New York, Arellano and Bostwick’s from Florida. The horses and grooms arrived in Berlin without incident, and the players convened a day later at the Berlin Steigenberger hotel, where all the teams and their entourage took residence and assembled in the lobby each morning for busses to the stadium. Camaraderie was high and the experience made lasting friendships. Wigdahl recalls that he was so well stocked with veterinary supplies at the advice of his trainer in Chicago, that all the teams came to him with their Equine needs which he happily shared.
The U.S. team faced its bracket opponents in a gauntlet of matches, including Germany, France and Chile, while England, Argentina, Switzerland and Australia competed in the other bracket, to determine the finalists. Handily defeating Germany and France, the U.S. tied Chile and advanced to the Final on net goals.
On the eve of the Final, after an elaborate gala with champagne reception and 5 course meal, the teams retired, but the U.S. team held a meeting and decided on a last-minute lineup change, moving Wigdahl to the back position which was his preferred position, Bostwick to #2 and Schwartz to #3, but decided to come out in the same jersey numbers they had been wearing.
In the intense competition, the Brits were confused by the changes while the underdog Americans played with confidence and ferocity, unexpected by the Brits who were known for their aggressive play. Trailing by a goal at the half, Bostwick scored the equalizer in the final period. With a minute and 20 seconds remaining, Wigdahl pounced on a ball 80 yards from the Brits goal, and, ignoring calls to ‘leave it’ from Bostwick, saw his way to the goal and decided to take it in himself, scoring the go-ahead goal. The team frantically held off a desperate final surge from the Brits in the eternal 60 remaining seconds to win the World Polo Championship that year.
Playing for their country and standing on the podium with gold medals as the U.S. national anthem hailed the new champions, Wigdahl and his teammates were brimming with joy and could not have imagined how long their unlikely feat would stand.