You can’t miss Sugar Erskine on the field. Just look for bright “Coca-Cola red” on anything you would not normally dye: his boots, saddle, helmet, socks, even his hair. High-goal polo almost lost this charismatic and beloved figure after his serious fall in a game in Houston in October 2016. A cervical injury required surgery and several months in a brace. Doctors told him he would never play polo again, but he told himself he’d be back on the field January 1, 2018. Tomorrow, after only two weeks’ practice with the team, he rejoins Coca-Cola in the Herbie Pennell Cup final at the International Polo Club Palm Beach. Here, in an interview with PoloChannel, he shares his courageous comeback story.
Since my accident my goal was always to be back on the field for the next Florida season. I was always kind of working back from that date towards the first of January 2018.
I’m super excited to be back! You suddenly realize how much you miss playing polo when you’re not allowed to do it. I am just so appreciative that I’ve been given the opportunity by Coke to play with them.
The doctors didn’t think I was ever going to play again. When I knew I was, I knew it was going to take time. I’d been told it would take about a year to heal. I had to get over the fact that I knew my bones weren’t going to be quite healed for the first eight months and that it would take another couple months to get going. Once I’d gone through all those medical processes and the doctors telling me I was fine, I was fine.
The hardest part was the mental side, just forgetting about what had happened. Sometimes you think about it too much. Once I forgot about it, everything was fine. I went out right at the beginning and I was focusing on trying to hit the ball and then I thought, “Man, I’ve been doing this my whole life. Why am I even worried about hitting the ball?” I had to get out of my own head. Once I got out of my head, it was a lot easier to go along.
If I was going to come back, I knew that I couldn’t come back in a downward spiral. I needed to come back as best prepared as I could be. The preparing side of it has been my focus for the last six months.
I was very fortunate to get back into the game in mid-summer and to go to Sheridan, Wyoming, where Gillian and Skee Johnston run their Flying H Polo. Everybody in Wyoming was very kind to me because they knew I was coming back. Everybody let me hit the ball. Nobody hooked me. I felt like a superstar! I felt like I was 12 again. Everybody let me run down the field and score goals. It was good fun. Once I started to get through and people realized I was feeling it again, they started to be a little bit meaner. [He laughs]
I was very lucky to get away with what happened to me. It was close, but I got away with one, so most people knew where I was coming from. So it started off in Wyoming nice and easy, and then I was able to push myself. I think it would have taken me longer if I hadn’t Coke’s support this summer in Wyoming. It made the difference and meant everything to me.
Again, very luckily, all four of us [Coca-Cola players] were in Sheridan. Throughout the Sheridan season, I never really got to play with Julio [Arellano] much because he was normally put on other teams. I got to play with Gillian [Johnston] quite a bit, and Gillian’s always quite quick to tell me I need to focus on hitting the ball through the posts and not missing goals. I saw Steve Krueger a little bit, and I played against him in Houston In September-October, which was about a year after my injury.
It became more evident that my body wasn’t sore, so I became more and more confident every time I went to the field. By the time fall rolled around, I could start feeling that I was okay. I played in some 12-goal tournaments in Houston in September and October, and that kind of got me back into the game part of it, where I have to make plays and forget about the injury.
I’ve been always focused on trying to make sure my horses were ready for January 1st. I was very fortunate that I was already on contract with Coke when I hurt myself because they kept my horses going. I brought my string to Florida for the team last season. Julio played a few of my horses, Gillian played a few, and the 7-goaler who took my place last year and both the 3-goalers used a lot of my horses and were very nice and always respectful that they were on somebody else’s horses. I was very fortunate.
I had some young horses I took to Sheridan last year to put a little pressure on them, and then I’ve got some new blood coming through. I have two horses that I’m very excited about that are making their debut this year. They’re ready, I’m ready.
Photos by Liz Lamont Images