Hanging out at the stables at a1995 tournament in Polo Club Schloß Ebreichsdorf near Vienna, helping my husband with our four ponies of the time, was my first encounter with Clara Podesta. Not long in Europe, and having just married Francesco Podesta, who'd come to Europe as a professional polo player in 1990, she was also helping her husband with the grooming and so we immediately had something in common! Over the years, we've repeatedly bumped into each other at various tournaments, but it wasn't until 2020 on a sunny day at Polo Park Zurich that we were finally able to sit over a civilised cup of coffee in the spaciously comfortable clubhouse and have a good chat.
The Early Years
Clara tells me that she and Francesco travelled massively in those early years...every weekend another city, another tournament from places such as Rome, Vienna to Berlin. Exciting and heady stuff for the young couple, and no doubt a whirlwind of a time, but as things do, they were about to change. Clara was due to give birth to their first child, Belen. After being stationed for 2 years at Waldshut in the Black Forest Francesco, Clara and baby Belen moved to Gutmartingen in Switzerland where Bernard Zollinger had established a polo club.
Time for a Change
The club in Gutmadingen was sadly just a bit far from Zürich for many of the players. The field itself was picturesquely situated between hills, but this meant that there would be no possibility of a second field and the club would find it difficult to expand and grow. So Marcus Gräff, an enthusiastic player, packed Francesco in his car and together they drove all over the countryside hunting for the perfect location for a new club. Not an easy task in Switzerland best known for its mountains rather than its flat spaces. But, after a year of searching, they found it - Seuzach, just outside of Zürich. Here, Marcus planned to establish Polo Park Zürich and wanted to do this with Francesco as club manager and trainer. It was decision time for the Podesta family. Francesco was 35 years old and knew that his young family needed stability, but at then just 25, Clara found herself extremely upset that Francesco was about to give up playing professionally, which he loved, to take up a managerial position. She rememberers weeping all night as she feared he would later regret this move, but he never did because for Francesco, his family was his main priority. Additionally, he discovered how much he loves to teach, so he was able to move into this realm without missing the actual playing as much as Clara had initially feared. As by this time, the Podestas had also had their second child, Rocio, being on the road with two small children had become a much harder option, so Polo Park Zurich and the new role for Francesco was the perfect situation for this growing family.
The family had grown and they were starting to think about really putting down roots. Where would they call home, Argentina or Switzerland? For both Francesco and Clara it was important for their daughters to have stability, security, education and a good standard of living. As Belen was going into secondary school Clara said, "It was not a difficult decision. It was very clear for us". They chose Switzerland. Belen and Rocio were able to complete their schooling, further education and start their professional life in Switzerland.
For the last few years the family has chosen to stay in Europe over the winter rather than head back to Argentina, but have also been looking for their "place in the sun". In Clara's words "a place to get old in". They found it in Mallorca and this Spring were over there together. Clara left to get back to her job at Polo Park Zürich but Francesco wanted to stay on in Mallorca a bit longer. Then Covid reared its ugly head. With lockdown starting all over the world Clara managed to get him on the last plane out. Perfect timing! The family were together again.
Clara makes an excellent cup of coffee, but I knew this was not her only function at Polo Park Zürich. Tournament correspondence regarding my commentaries had all been with Clara, so what was her role? Sebastian Le Page took over the club in 2014 and the lovely clubhouse we were sitting in went into construction with bar, restrooms and an office. Sebastian wanted a secretary at the club who knew about polo and so asked Clara to take on the position. At first she turned it down, probably fully aware of the extent of the work involved but, as she says, "Here I am". Their daughters were going their own way and Francesco was always at the club so again the time was right to pick up this challenge. Officially she's responsible for office organisation, but she has always known that in this polo life you have to be flexible. So she takes care of whatever is needed from manager, caterer to cook (and she really does make a great coffee). She tells me that she loves the club and feels that she has really grown up there.
Has Francesco managed to instil his love of polo in his daughters? Not completely. Rocio doesn't play at all but Belen has shown a lot of talent, playing at the Zurich International Ladies Tournaments since their inauguration, jumping in as a substitute in tournaments and playing occasionally in club chukkers. However, it should all just be for fun because otherwise she's busy with her private and professional life.
And now, after all these years, Clara still sometimes quietly slips into the stables to help Francesco in the evenings with the ponies. Funnily enough, their daughters were astonished that she knows how to groom...they hadn't realised, and she'd never thought to tell them. But I knew; I had met her 25 years ago, doing just that!