[100 Emerging Women Leaders] Meet Rina Shah, India’s first professional female polo player, a shoe designer, businesswoman, and DJ
In 2010, Rina Shah fell in love with polo after watching a match in Mumbai. She just couldn’t take her eyes off the galloping horses and wondered why only men could play this game.
And at the age of 38, Rina decided to take up polo professionally. It wasn’t something that women were known to explore and her entry into the sport wasn't planned.
Interestingly, Rina had already established her premium footwear brand Rinaldi Designs, which has a top celebrity clientele including the likes of Naomi Campbell, Natalie Portman, Goldie Hawn, Rekha, Shilpa Shetty, and Kareena Kapoor Khan, to name a few.
Rina has also established and certified herself as the top 10 DJ’s at the DJ School of Amsterdam. Talking about her polo journey, Rina says,
“I always wanted to play one tough sport but never thought of polo. Horses won me over and it wasn’t something a woman in India was doing at the time. I had never sat on a horse, so it took me almost a year to learn horse riding for polo, which is very different from normal horse riding. I knew there were no polo schools in India, so I had to go to Argentina for a month to train, and then Santa Barbara and England.”
By then, she had become the only woman actively playing polo in India. In fact, Rina has also set up a polo school as well.
Rinaldi Pola, her polo team today, boasts of veteran players like Samir Suhag, Chirag Parekh, Gaurav Seghal, and His Highness Maharaja Padmanabh Singh.
Never a quitter
Being one of the first women to join the equestrian sport, Rina says, while she didn’t face obvious bias, the space was male-dominated and had its own set of challenges.
She says, “Initially, people did not take me seriously and made fun of me, and also doubted I would survive the sport. They thought I would quit and never come back after many injuries. But I was never going to be a quitter. Right now, especially in India, it's only male-dominated, but I try and inspire many women, and hope that we will have many more women play this majestic sport. In 2019, I invited women from different countries to come and play a women-only game in Mumbai.”
During her riding lessons at the Amateur Riders’ Club in Mumbai with Sureshji, who motivated her to learn polo, she remembers falling off of her horse and people laughing and making fun of her.
But, for someone, who had already faced many challenges from other shoe designers and businesses when she first started Rinaldi Designs, people laughing at her wasn’t a big problem.
“Many thought I was stupid to start playing polo at my age but I wasn’t discouraged. I knew I did not want to give up. I played my first small tournament which gave me confidence that nothing was impossible,” says Rina.
The sweet pain of success
Soon after, Rina headed to Jaipur to train with Vishal Singh. Since Rina had to run Rinaldi Designs as well, she would work all week in Mumbai and fly to Jaipur over the weekend to play and train.
“That time got super hectic as I had to be at work with less sleep and body ache. But it was sweet pain as I was doing the impossible at 40. Soon after I launched my team, I played my first big four-goal tournament in Mumbai, where my horse and I had the biggest fall but I got back on the horse 2 minutes before the end of the game and won,” says Rina.
It was the moment she realised how addicted she was to the game. The fall resulted in a fracture and severe back pain, which took several months to recover. But, once she was back on the horse, she went to England for a month to train.
“I had to struggle as I got in the game very late in life and was playing with younger players who had trained all their lives. I played in Jaipur, Jodhpur, the US, Delhi, Bangkok, Pattaya, South Africa, etc. I still keep working on the riding and coaching as polo can never be excelled; you have to keep going at it,” she adds.
Rina says while she might never become the top polo player but at 46, being able to play a man’s sport, along with players who are 18-35, she is proud of what she has achieved.
“I am one of the very few women playing the sport. I have proved that one can achieve whatever they put their mind to it and age is never a barrier,” says Rina.
This year, Rina is aiming to go to Ibiza and play beach polo and next year, she wants to go to St Moritz and play snow polo. She also plans to start another fashion brand, which is in its preliminary stages.
Then, she wants to start her own techno drums.
To young girls, she says, “Dream big always but achieve it honesty, hard work, and compassion for others.” She adds that to achieve anything in life, you have to work hard and want it very badly.
“There is no shortcut! Whatever I have done in life is with hard work, sacrificing many things, and making it my life goal. So, first, discover your passion and money and success will follow,” says Rina.