The Cornell women’s polo team currently sits atop the collegiate polo world, recently defeating Texas A&M to capture its second straight national championship. Led by the winningest coach in Cornell athletics history, David Eldredge ’81, along with starters Anna Winslow, Elena Wicker and Emma Eldredge, Cornell polo continues to build upon its reputation as an elite program. And if you didn’t already know, the head coach and one of the Red’s top players share the same last name.
That’s right. The father-daughter duo of David and Emma is one of the keys to Cornell’s success and has been in the making for generations.
Polo has long been a part of the Eldredge family. David’s father first learned the sport of polo when he attended Cornell in the early 1940s and brought it back to the family’s dairy farm in Sharon Springs, New York. He and his older brother took a liking to the game and both went on to play at Cornell, where each spent time as captain of the team. David became the team’s head coach shortly after he graduated and has been coaching ever since — this past season was his 31st at the helm. David’s wife and his older daughter Kailey both played for Cornell, so it seemed only natural for Emma to do the same.
“Basically she didn’t have a whole lot of choice,” David said. “From an early age, we did give her the option of polo or some other sport, but we sort of knew what she’d choose … She’s been living the life of polo pretty much ever since.” For Emma, family history was the biggest factor in her involvement in the sport.
“We owned horses and I watched my dad coach the Cornell teams,” Emma said. “I felt I was a part of Cornell polo. It was something that I grew up with and loved and enjoyed.”
Emma began to ride as early as six and started playing polo, “as soon as she could pick up a mallet,” at age 10. A quick learner, she benefited from the Cornell matches she attended with her family and began to acquire a real interest in the sport as the years went on.
“Emma can watch a sport and learn a tremendous amount from it. She picks things up very strongly,” David said.
She went on to play polo in high school and won the interscholastic national championship for the U.S. team alongside her sister in 2010. When it came time to apply to college, Cornell was the only school on the Ithaca native’s list with a competitive polo program. When her father asked her why, Emma told him something that still makes him proud today.
“She said to me ‘There is no way I could play polo any place other than Cornell because you taught me everything I know, and I could never come back and play against you,’” David said. “It was really neat that I’ve had that strong of a relationship with her that she could say this is the only place I’m going to play polo and he’s the only one I’m going to play polo for.”
“I had always had this affiliation with Cornell, and I wanted to keep it that way,” Emma said. “I think if I were playing against my father and his team, I’d actually want to be rooting for Cornell and not my own team.”
After being accepted into Cornell, Emma joined the team her freshman year — playing under her father, the head coach. This was not the first time David had coached her, however, and the two had made an important agreement many years prior to deal with the potentially problematic dynamic.
“We had an agreement to separate the two jobs,” David said. “When she’s out there on the polo field, I’m her coach, not her father.”
Emma, who refers to her father as “coach” during practice, gives him credit for this. “I think my dad has done a very good job of keeping that separation,” she said. “He knows the line between being a coach and being a father, and he’s very good at distinguishing that.”
This same agreement ensures that Emma receives no special treatment on the team; her freshmen year she spent the season on the bench as an alternate.
“I’m not treated special in any way,” Emma said. “We’re all here to play polo to win, and if I don’t give the team the best chance to win, then I know I won’t be on the team.”
The idea of playing only because she is the coach’s daughter was once a thought in the back of her mind, but she now knows – as do her teammates – that she’s had to earn her way into a starting role.
In her sophomore and junior years, she did just this, playing an integral role in the team’s two national titles. The duo will cherish their final season together next year as the Red looks to defend its national title.
“It’s incredible,” said Emma. “It’s a very cool family dynamic of how it works out. We all love polo and we’re all able to be involved in it so much. I’m very fortunate to be in the position that I’m in.”
But for David, watching the family legacy in polo continue on has been the best part of it all.
“It has been such a pleasure to coach my children and have them be successful,” David said. “Knowing that I was able to play a major part in what she has accomplished just adds to it all.”