Upper Darby native and local nurse becomes first Black woman to compete in U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championships

Shariah Harris started riding horses in Philadelphia at 8 years old. In addition to being a polo athlete, she also works as an operating room nurse.

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Shariah Harris smiles while riding her horse

Shariah Harris, 25, grew up in Upper Darby and learned how to ride horses and play polo through a program at Work to Ride in Philadelphia. Harris continued playing throughout college at Cornell University and in national and international professional tournaments. (Lezlie Hiner)

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Shariah Harris said it was “surreal” when she rode out onto the polo pitch with her teammates for their first match earlier this month in the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship.

“Butterflies on a thousand,” Harris said. “But then once I started playing, it’s business as usual. I’ve played a lot of polo.”

Shariah Harris rides a horse while playing polo
Shariah Harris, 25, grew up in Upper Darby and learned how to ride horses and play polo through a program at Work to Ride in Philadelphia. Harris continued playing throughout college at Cornell University and in national and international professional tournaments. (Lezlie Hiner)

But these matches weren’t exactly business as usual. They marked a significant moment in U.S. equestrian sports as Harris, who grew up in Upper Darby, became the first Black woman to compete in the annual professional tournament.

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After losing in the semifinals last week, Harris, 25, returned home from Florida this week and said she’s still learning to accept all the recognition and attention she’s received.

“It’s still very weird to me,” she said, “but I’m learning to embrace it and use it to help other people break barriers into the sport.”

Shariah Harris speaks at a podium
Shariah Harris, 25, was born in North Philadelphia and grew up in Upper Darby. She was honored by Lankenau Medical Center, where she is an operating room nurse, for being the first Black woman to play in the U.S. Women’s Polo Championship. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Considered one of the world’s oldest known sports, polo has long been dominated by white athletes of wealthy backgrounds. So as a Black woman from Greater Philadelphia, Harris said she’s used to being the “first” or “only” when it comes to the world of polo.

“I was either the only girl or then when I left my team in high school to play in college, I was the only Black person period,” she said.

Now, Harris finds that young Black girls are looking up to her, and she encourages them to “go for it.”

“If you don’t see anyone who looks like you, that’s OK,” Harris said. “It might not feel OK at the time, but it’s OK because you never know if you will be the catalyst for other people who look like you coming into the sport.”

As a college student, Harris competed with and led the women’s polo team at Cornell University. But she got her start in horseback riding many years earlier at the age of 8 when her mother literally stumbled upon the Work to Ride program based in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.

“My mom and my younger brother, we all got lost in the park, made a wrong turn and we found the program,” Harris said. “My mom just saw other Black kids riding, and she was like, ‘OK, how can I get my kids involved in this?’”

Work to Ride started in 1994 as a nonprofit organization based at Chamounix Equestrian Center, which teaches horse care, riding and polo to underserved and under-resourced youth in the area.

The founder of this program, Lezlie Hiner, said learning how to ride horses and play polo can be a great way for young people to spend their time after school or in the summer. But she also knows that the high cost of participating in equestrian activities puts it out of reach for many children and families.

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Hiner said not all kids and teens who come through the program will go on to play polo at the college or professional levels, but seeing Shariah Harris compete nationally has become an inspiration to many.

“To me, it’s really important that they see somebody like Shariah who looks just like them,” Hiner said. “That she’s able to go to an Ivy League college, play polo at these levels. She’s confident, she’s sharp.”

Lezlie Hiner poses for a photo
Lezlie Hiner is the executive director of Work to Ride at Chamounix Stables in Fairmount Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Harris said her polo career couldn’t have happened without Work to Ride.

“My mom didn’t have money for horses,” she said. “Horses are a very expensive sport and polo is even more expensive. Without the program, I never would have had access to any of it.”

After graduating college, Harris pursued a career in nursing. She began working as an operating room nurse last year at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood. She traded in her riding boots and jerseys for scrubs as she returned to work this week.

Nurse manager Simone Nicholson said on the job, Harris is one of the most eager learners she knows.

“She’s very calm, quiet. Her demeanor is phenomenal. She’s not afraid of anything,” Nicholson said.

Operating room staff gathered at the hospital Wednesday to welcome Harris back and celebrate her success.

“All of us here today are so happy, so proud of you,” Nicholson said to Harris.

Harris said she’s looking forward to advancing both her careers in health care and polo competition, and has high hopes for her team’s chances in next year’s U.S. Open tournament.

“If we’re back again next year, I think we’ll win it.”

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