February 2, 2006

10 Questions With Cornell W. Polo Player Ariel Katz

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While preparing to take on archrival UConn in a match this weekend, junior polo player Ariel Katz galloped a few furlongs with Sun Senior Writer Per Ostman.

1. What’s the over/under on the number of The Little Mermaid references you get in a given day?

Oh, man. It’s every time I meet someone. Just randomly, you know? I’d go to a Starbucks when I was in New York and they’d ask me my name. I’d tell them it was “Ariel” and their faces would light up. It was kind of funny.

Do you have a habit of striking up conversations with complete strangers in coffee shops?

No, no, no! It’s when you order something. They ask you your name.

Really? Does this happen? No one ever asks me my name at Starbucks.

You must not go to the ones that are really popular.

Apparently not. I guess I’m pretty lame.

It’s all the time, too. Not just at Starbucks. A lot of times, people won’t get my name. They’ll think it’s “Erin” or something and I’ll have to tell them, “No, it’s Ariel, like The Little Mermaid.”

You’ll actually bring up the movie?

Yeah, I’ve come to use it as a reference.

In the interest of full disclosure, do you like the movie?

I was four years old when it came out. Can you imagine growing up with a movie where the main character had your name?

Now that you mention it, no. But I’d suppose that it would tend to color the rest of your life.

It did. I had a nice Little Mermaid costume for Halloween, with the red wig and the flippers.

Flippers?

It doesn’t fit me anymore, but I wish it did.

Your last name is Katz, and what is funny to me is that people won’t make the easier joke about kittens, but they’ll pull The Little Mermaid.

Yeah, it is easier, but no one really ever brings it up.

I guess it’s not that funny. If you saw Cats and The Little Mermaid as a double feature, would that complete your life?

That was one of my favorite musicals! My favorite movie and my favorite musical – that would make my day.

2. Explain the different parts of your polo uniform.

People always joke with us – “Oh, you play polo. Do you wear polos?” YES. WE DO WEAR POLOS.

There’s no need to speak in all Caps. You’re referring to polo shirts?

Yes, polo shirts.

Is that where the name came from? From your sport?

Probably. Ralph Lauren ripped it off.

Now, these polo shirts of yours – they have collars, correct?

Yes.

I’d like you to clear something up for me. Do you wear these collars down, or in the full, upright, and popped position? Is it some sort of safety precaution? Are you worried about dust getting on your neck?

Here’s the thing. We considered it for a little while, but then we saw our two biggest rivals, UVA and UConn. Both teams loved to wear their collars popped. We decided that we were never ever going to do that.

Other than recently, have you ever seen polo players with their collars popped?

No, not at all. It really just shows a lack of style. If it would happen, it would be because the person just sloppily threw their shirt on.

So, for the record, popping your collar is not cool?

No. Not at Cornell.

Can you explain this to the Cornell fraternity system? Maybe put out a PSA or something?

I’m going to get in trouble for this.

That’s the idea.

I just can’t stand seeing my fellow classmates represent the teams that I hate.

3. Would you characterize polo a contact sport?

People are usually surprised at how much contact there is in polo.

Well, you wouldn’t expect it. Wouldn’t the horses get spooked?

Yeah, see, we have a very special breed of horse.

What? Medieval battle stallions?

That’s one of the hard things about training a polo horse. You have to train it – they don’t naturally want to run into each other. Some of them do, actually. Some of them like it.

Do you get the sense that the animal knows what is going on, in the sense that there’s a competition?

Some of the horses know the game better than we do. Sometimes a horse will turn in the right direction before I’ll even think to. Some of them really get it.

There’s an intelligence there?

We all talked about this. If you’re a polo horse, it’s like being able to run a four minute mile AND have a Ph.D. They have to be intelligent.

You’ve got a stable full of Roger Bannisters, huh?

Yeah. We like to think so. It’s a special breed.

Which, specifically?

Mostly thoroughbreds and quarter-horses. Sometimes a mix of the two. You need thoroughbreds in outdoor polo especially, because there’s more running.

Are these the horses who weren’t fast enough to race?

Well, we do have some off-the-track horses.

Really? So they don’t all go out to stud? Some of them play polo?

Exactly.

I think I’d have to go with the “stud” option if given the choice.

No, really?

How great is that, though? You don’t agree? If I was a horse, I’d much rather hang out and sire champions then spend the rest of my life with people like you running me into things. I’ll take option A, thank you very much.

Ouch.

4. What’s the name of your horse?

We have a lot of horses that we rotate through. Close to 28 in the stable. Their names range from the kind of mundane to the very unusual. The Yale team has a horse named “Yo Mama.” We’d always make jokes with them about it, like “is it okay to whip Yo Mama?”

I don’t even have a joke here. Do you have any with the crazy racehorse names? Like “Go for Gin,” or “Afleet Alex?”

Not like that so much, but we do have a lot of horses with Spanish names. Polo is very big in Latin America.

If you speak Spanish to the horses, will they do your bidding? Is it like in The Lord of the Rings?

I wish that was true. I wish I was a horse-whisperer.

Have you ever tried that? Is Robert Redford full of crap?

No, I don’t have that talent. But people actually do it. When I used to do jumping, horses would come to us that would just be completely out of control. We would send them away to this guy – we called him The Cowboy.

I think I remember this from a David Lynch film.

They would come back and they’d be all better. I couldn’t believe it.

Are you sure he didn’t just inject them with a tranquilizer?

You know what? I don’t know what they do, but it works.

5. Be honest – like appendixes and tie-tacks, horseshoes are vestigial at best, right?

No, they’re very useful.

What?

More so outdoors than indoors. Even though a horse’s hoof is hard – it’s like a fingernail – they really have to have shoes, because you can get rocks –

But how did all the horses survive in the wild without us nailing semi-circular pieces of metal to their feet?

You could say that about all domesticated animals. “How could they live in the wild?”

So, shoes actually do help the horse?

Absolutely. They prevent things like stone bruises.

How come the PETA people get all over me for eating a steak, but they let you hammer sheet metal into a horse’s foot?

First of all, it doesn’t hurt them.

How do you know? Did you ask? You’re not a horse whisperer, remember?

I feel like they must have done some electrode study, to see whether the pain centers of the brain fire when they get shoed.

I’m sure we’ve put in that much effort.

6. Why should people consider you an athlete? Isn’t the horse doing all the work?

Oh, I get that so much! I always have to defend myself.

Well, here’s your chance.

Honestly, just come see a game. Even when I used to just be a rider, I always thought I was being pretty athletic. I had the strongest legs out of everyone I knew.

That’s what they say about girls who ride horses. More or less.

I do. I have the strong legs. But when I started playing polo, it was a whole different level. It combines riding horses and a contact sport. I am so out of breath, you would not believe it. When I was in New York last semester [for Cornell’s Urban Semester], I tried to run every day to try and stay in shape, but running doesn’t really give you the right kind of muscle.

Have you tried doing Kegels?

When I started riding again, I was so sore!

I’m telling you. Kegels. Inner thigh.

It’s like riding a bicycle. You know what to do and how to do it, but it takes a while for your body to get back in shape.

I love how you’re not even dignifying me with a response.

[Laughs]

What, specifically, is athletically difficult about polo?

It’s like any sport, but it’s at another level because you have the horse in there. You have to control your horse. That’s a big deal, because if your horse wants to do something that you don’t want him to do, it takes a lot of muscle to force him in the right direction.

So, it’s a little more athletic than, say, NASCAR?

I always feel bad ripping on other sports, but I don’t understand how that’s a sport.

You do more than just turn left on the horses?

Yes. And if you’re playing polo, you have to not only control your horse, but you have to take out other players, AND you have to try and score. There are three very specific components to polo. I don’t want to rip on any other sports, but there are certain sports where you only have one set goal. Block a man, or throw a ball, or hit a ball. You don’t have all those factors coming together at once.

7. What’s it like growing up in Ithaca, particularly as the daughter of two Cornell professors?

I’m from about a half a mile down the road. I’m a Townie. We’re trying to take that term and change it so it’s not derogatory.

You might be a little late on that.

Yeah. But I’ve never really known anything else. Growing up in Ithaca seemed great to me.

You had easy access to fresh squash and organic coffee.

I never even knew there was anything else. I assumed all coffee was organic and Fair Trade. Then I went to Starbucks, and they had all sorts of different kinds.

Are you a Starbucks girl now?

You know, they’re everywhere in New York, so when I needed my caffeine it was the closest place to go.

You should come up to Boston and we’ll get you some Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, so you can see how coffee is supposed to taste.

Ugh.

Hate Boston, huh? We’ll get to that. Was it always a foregone conclusion that you’d come to Cornell?

After I was about 14, I knew that there was nowhere else I’d rather go. My polo coach now had been training me since I was a kid, so it was kind of always assumed that I’d go here. Fortunately, I was a good student. Between his recommendation, my parents, and my grades, I was able to get in.

In that order? Did the intelligence genes get passed on to you?

I like to think that I would’ve got in just as easily on my own merit, but I did have a lot of people pulling for me.

It’s always nice to have help.

People always ask me, “Why would you go to college so close to home?” I mean, I have an Ivy League institution in my backyard. Why would I want to go anywhere else?

I don’t know. The weather?

Yeah, oh God.

8. You’re an avid follower of the Yankees, Knicks, and Giants, and claim to watch ESPN constantly. How did you become such a huge sports fan? I hate to play to the stereotype, but most sorority girls aren’t staying up to catch Baseball Tonight.

My parents are both academics, and I love them more than anything, but they’re really big nerds. My mom went to MIT, and my dad taught there. They were worried that they would have a really nerdy child. So, when I was little, they got me very involved in sports. They wanted me to have something else outside of schoolwork.

I think that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard, because so many people (especially here) over-focus on academics. As if taking a gut distribution elective is more important than playing a sport. It’s refreshing to hear how progressive nerds have become. I’m refreshed.

I’ve just always enjoyed having something to take my mind off school. And every Sunday in the winter, my dad and I would watch the Giants. Every day in the summer, we’d watch the Yankees.

Give me your reaction to the signing of Johnny Damon for $52 million.

Hey, if you’ve got it, spend it.

Don’t you think Cashman should have thrown a few dollars at the abysmal pitching staff?

I think the pitching staff was what saved our season last year.

Yeah, but by complete accident!

We came into the season with all these high-priced veterans, overrated and overpaid, and they all got injured. The ones who stepped up were the homegrown guys. And they saved the staff.

Shawn Chacon isn’t homegrown!

No, but Wang is.

I’m going to call you in a few months after Chacon, Wang, and Aaron Small make their catastrophic and inevitable regressions to the mean.

That’s just not going to happen.

9. You worked for the New York NBC sports affiliate during your urban semester. What’s your opinion of Isiah Thomas?

I actually never got to speak to him. I spoke with Larry Brown and a bunch of the Knicks – Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury, and Channing Frye. But you’d think that someone who was such an amazing player would at least have an idea about how to formulate a winning team.

Yeah. You’d think.

I just can’t stress enough how bad he’s been. Not the players. In their own right, they’re good players, but it’s not the right mix. They don’t click.

How much of this can be blamed on Larry Brown? I mean, for the first time ever, he’s playing rookies. How bad must this team be for Brown to be changing his style?

I’m speechless when it comes to the Knicks. I was the one person at the beginning of the season who said, “It’s alright, Larry Brown teams always start off slow.” But now, I don’t know.

Can they make the playoffs?

This year? No way. There are some times in every sports fan’s career when you’re just going to get depressed.

I almost remember what that feels like.

Oh yeah? Well you’re going to find out again!

This is delightful. I’m told you have an interesting basketball story.

The girl I was working with at NBC was really good friends with [New Jersey Net] Richard Jefferson from past experience.

Past experience?

One of her friends had been seeing him a while ago.

Ah. In the Biblical sense.

She introduced us at a club and [Knick] David Lee was there too. I’ve always been someone who idolized professional athletes, but when you’re out there with them at a club and they have a conversation with you, you realize that they’re real people and they’re really interested in talking to you.

I’m sure they are.

It was really an experience. Athletes always say that they’re normal people, but it never really hit me until that situation.

Were these guys hitting on you?

No, my friend always jokes that I turned down David Lee, though. She’s much more of a touchy-feely person than I am, so when we were leaving she gave them each a kiss on the cheek. And I don’t really like getting touched by people I don’t know. I’m not a fan of massages or anything like that. Only my good friends.

And your horses.

Yeah, I love my horses. So, David kind of leaned in to kiss me, and I kind of turned away and offered my hand instead. Then we left. I wasn’t really feeling it, you know? It was the first time we had met.

Maybe you can hold his hand on the second date.

Also, he was too tall. It would be a real struggle for him to get down to my level.

Well, it seems he was willing to do so.

He was a little inappropriate when it came to using his fame in terms of girls. We were all out on the floor dancing and he slapped my friend’s ass.

Is that kind of thing flattering when it comes from a pro athlete?

No, it’s not cool. Richard Jefferson actually took the opportunity to say that was why the Nets were better than the Knicks. That they know how to respect women.

See, this is the kind of reporting that doesn’t make it into The Times. I love it. I’m sure the Knicks’ attorneys are already leaving me voicemails.

10. What’s the hottest men’s team at Cornell?

I don’t know. I’ve been gone, so I need to check out who’s on the teams now.

But you’ve been here for a few years. You know the score.

In terms of pretty faces?

Not necessarily. Everyone has their own definition.

When I’m in Bartels, nothing is more attractive than the wrestlers. They all come in wearing their Under Armour shirts. You know, it clings to their muscles. That’s hot.

Yes, they’re jacked. Surprisingly, I think that’s the first vote we’ve had for them.

I spend a lot of time in the gym, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s nice to work out there. You get to see all the boys.

10 Questions with Per Ostman will appear every Thursday, even while he’s being sued by the New York Knicks. Questions, comments, and restraining orders can be sent to his attorneys at tenquestions@mac.com.

Archived article by Per Ostman