Not many girls play the sport of polo in Nigeria.
Consider Uneku Saliu-Atawodi a trailblazer.
“Horses have always been a passion of mine,” Saliu-Atawodi said. “I was always fascinated with polo since I was a little child. People say in my country we don’t really have a lot of girls playing, so that spurred me even more.”
Not only does Saliu-Atawodi, 25, own the Bamboo Polo Team in England, but she also plays in international tournaments.
On Friday during the opening round of the Miami Beach Polo World Cup IX between 20th and 22nd Streets, she was the lone female competitor of the six male teams.
This is nothing new for Saliu-Atawodi, who plays with and against men in her native country. Her previous two years competing in this tournament, however, were in the women’s division.
One of her teammates, Oscar Mancini from Argentina, first met Saliu-Atawodi in London toward the middle of the 2012 season.
A few months later in September, she invited him to play in Nigeria. The pair kept in touch. When it came time to put together teams for the tournament in Miami, Saliu-Atawodi once again reached out to Mancini.
“She’s good,” Mancini said. “I think she really, really likes polo. For being a girl — I don’t have any problems with girls playing — but it’s more difficult because of the body strength.”
Saliu-Atawodi first rode a horse when she was 5 years old. She doesn’t remember the experience, but it clearly developed a strong love for the animal.
Her family lived in Kaduna, a part of north-central Nigeria before moving to Pakistan. They then went to Brazil for a few years until returning to Kaduna for a couple of years.
In college, she earned a bachelor’s degreein equestrian science, which helps her understand horses. From their nutrition to their gait — she considers it a life study that also helps her on the polo field.
She does happily recall the first horse she bought with her own money, Popcorn, because she smelled like the food.
The white horse with blue eyes was stubborn, but Saliu-Atawodi said it made her into a better rider and polo player.
“She was not a very good pony, but I learned a lot from her,” Saliu-Atawodi said. “We taught each other polo.”
On Day 1 of 3 in the men’s competition, La Martina and Raleigh/Comcast won their respective matches. Grey Goose topped Saliu-Atawodi’s James Hotel/JetBlue team 19-14.
Matches begin at 2 p.m. Saturday. The champion will be crowned at 6p.m. Sunday.