JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – Cycle polo? What in the world is cycle polo? That's a thing? These are questions Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan MacPherson, a 673rd Logistics Readiness Squadron Fuels Management Flight fuels service center controller, is accustomed to hearing.
A passionate competitor in the sport, MacPherson said he is happy to explain.
However, what the Hoboken, New Jersey, native sometimes leaves out is the fact he has world-class talent, as demonstrated by his recent qualification to compete in the World Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships in Montpellier, France, later this month.
Bike polo is played in more than 30 countries, and it grows in popularity each year.
MacPherson qualified to compete in the world championship after competing in the North American Hardcourt regional qualifier in July. His team was one of the top 16 qualifiers to advance to the world championship.
For some people, the word polo might conjure up images of English gentlemen on horseback wielding oversized clubs -- playing what looks to be a hybrid version of hockey and golf. That's not far off the mark, MacPherson said.
However, the game of polo has evolved and taken on many forms since the late 1800s. One of the more popular iterations of the sport is known as "hardcourt," typically played on a street hockey rink.
"The best way to describe it is three-on-three hockey," MacPherson said. "You put the ball in the middle, somebody counts down, and one person from each team sprints [to the ball] in what's called a joust, and after that, you try to put the ball in the goal."
Although game rules and length vary based on location, in general, games are 15 minutes long, and the winner is determined by the first team to score five goals. One consistent rule is that players are not permitted to touch the ground with their feet. This is known as a "dab," and it requires offenders to stop competing and cycle to midcourt to tap their mallet on a designated penalty stripe before returning to the action.
Additionally, mallets have a narrow end and a wide side. To score a goal, players must hit the ball with the narrow end; using the side is called a "shuffle," and the shot does not count.
Balance, cardiovascular endurance, communication and hand-eye coordination are essential, MacPherson said.
"This isn't a sport that's natural to your body," MacPherson said. "Trying to hit a ball with a stick while riding a bike sounds like something you would do in a circus. It's really awkward at first."
The ability to master all these things is what sets MacPherson apart from most competitors, said David Henke, an Army veteran and teammate.
"He's really fast and has an accurate shot," Henke said. "The coordination he has, comparatively to a lot of people, is incredible."
Prior to picking up the sport in 2011, MacPherson had experience in bike riding, soccer and hockey, three sports that primed him for bike polo. The championship-hopeful airman also attributes much of his success to intangible qualities he's picked up in the Air Force.
"The mental tools the Air Force gives you carry over well into the game," MacPherson said. "The sport is controlled chaos, so passing, communication and teamwork is huge. There's no coach or assigned positions, really. However, my job is communication. Being a leader in the Air Force, I find myself in a leader position on the team, so there is a lot of correlation there."
While MacPherson is able to contribute to the game with skills given to him by the Air Force, the game, and his training for it, gives back to him by improving his physical fitness, directly impacting mission readiness, he said.
"I try to go for a 30-to-40 mile bike ride at least once a week," MacPherson said. It helps staying in shape. Riding a bike is a great way to help with your run time. I've knocked over a minute off my time, just from riding my bike."
MacPherson also learned perseverance through the game.
"The first time I came out here, I was falling all the time and couldn't hit the ball at all," he said. "I just stuck with it, and gradually picked it up. You'd be amazed what you can do when you set your mind to something."
The fuels sergeant said he hopes the skills he's acquired will carry him and his team to victory later this month.
"I'm really excited for it," MacPherson said. "Just going to the North American championship was my goal this year. It's been my dream for the past two years."
MacPherson's success comes as no surprise to his leadership.
"After speaking to him about the competition, it didn't surprise me that he met the stringent criteria," said Senior Master Sgt. Ronald Crowl, a 673rd LRS fuels management flight chief. "It is a great honor, and the flight is standing behind him in hopes that he will come out with top honors. Not too often do you have members of your flight associated with activities that bring such prestige, and showcases their abilities to strive to a higher calling of their talents."
While he's a competitor at heart with a fierce desire to win, MacPherson said the most fulfilling aspect is the camaraderie he has with not only his teammates, but other competitors as well.
"My favorite thing I take out of this is the sense of community" MacPherson said. "We're like a big family. Everyone who goes to these tournaments instantly becomes friends. I know people from the U.S., Australia, Japan and all over Europe. These are friendships I will take to the grave. This silly game brings us together.
"Maybe we're a little crazy,” he added, “but we're crazy together."