Polo world stunned by death of American player

  • The polo world lost one of its most prominent amateur players and officials last week when American Summerville K “Skeeter” Johnston III died from injuries sustained in a fall during a practice match for the Stanford US Open Championship in Florida.

    The 53-year-old’s death is polo’s third fatality in less than eight months. Chile’s highest-rated player, Gabriel Donoso, died last November after a fall during friendly chukkas in Argentina (news, 16 November 2006). Last August, Catherine Yates, 20, died after a collision during a Pony Club match at Cirencester Park (news, 17 August 2006). The previous month Bryan Morrison, owner of the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club, fell in a friendly match there (news, 3 August 2006). He remains in hospital in a coma.

    Mr Johnston, the two-goal patron of the Skeeterville team, was practising on his private ground, Everglades, and wearing protective headgear and a face guard when the accident took place last Thursday (5 April). His mount tripped on the legs of a team-mate’s pony, causing Mr Johnston to be thrown off and crushed by his own horse.

    He was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where doctors performed emergency surgery, but died the following night from head injuries. He also suffered multiple fractures to his face
    and body.

    Chairman of the safety committee of the US Polo Association (USPA) Dr Tim Nice told H&H: “This was just a tragic accident to an experienced rider. Unfortunately, even the best headgear cannot always protect a rider from a hard fall or the impact of a 1,000lb horse.”

    The USPA spring meeting will be taking place next week (16-24 April) and Dr Nice told H&H that Mr Johnston’s death was bound to be discussed.

    All three polo riders killed in the past eight months were wearing helmets at the time of their accidents. The USPA safety committee tests polo helmets, something that does not currently happen in the UK, although British polo’s governing body, the Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA), is looking into producing a safer riding helmet (news, 16 November 2006).

    The HPA is also examining whether it would be possible to have medical clearance before an injured player can play again.

    David Woodd, chief executive of the HPA, lamented the deaths, but stressed that there was no link between them.

    He said: “Fatal accidents in polo are very rare and these deaths coming so close together is a tragic coincidence. None of the recent polo deaths occurred in a major competition.”

    Johnston, one of America’s most popular high-goal team patrons, was a long serving governor-at-large of the USPA. Two days before his accident, he launched the new North American Polo League. A prolific businessman, his death made headlines across the USA.

    Skeeterville decided to play last Sunday in tribute to their patron, narrowly losing to reigning champions Las Monjitas. All the Skeeterville players wore number one shirts, Johnston’s position, and competitors wore black armbands. Before the afternoon match, a groom led Johnston’s favourite pony, Raba, to the midfield before a silent crowd.

    This news story was first published in Horse & Hound (12 April, ’07)

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