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Along for the Segway polo ride with Woz

With the FIFA World Cup kicking off in South Africa, you probably missed the unapologetically less grueling, but distinctly geek-a-licious global competition that crowned a champion last week off the coast of Venezuela, in the island nation of Barbados.

On a pristine pitch surrounded by Caribbean seas, fans were lulled through four days of competition, not by the deafening blare of vuvuzelas, but rather, a sweet ocean breeze and the gentle hum of zero-emissions electric motors.

Eight teams from around the globe met with mallets in hand and Segways underfoot to compete in the Woz Cup Challenge, affectionately known as the World Cup of Segway Polo (a form of polo that replaces actual horses with 2-horsepower, battery-powered human transporters).

The tournament is named after the man who has become the (inter)face of the sport. An early adopter of Segway Inc.'s human transporter, Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak has been a vocal proponent of the innovation and amusement to be had behind the Segway's handlebar.

"I think I might actually be the first person to have purchased a Segway. Others got them before me for free because they wrote essays about how it was going to change the world, but I loved the concept from the very beginning and I bought one right away," said Woz, who now owns some 10 Segways. "I loved it so much I bought another one so I could do it with family members, then I bought a couple more for friends. Between my wife and I, who also plays, we now have about 10."

Wozniak was first introduced to the invention in 2002 when the Segway's mastermind, Dean Kamen, was receiving the Lemelson Prize in San Francisco and Woz was giving the keynote address. "His people let me ride it around a little bit and I was intrigued right away."

As far as the creation of Segway polo is concerned, Woz claims it was a logical jump for the imaginative brains he keeps in his company. "There were a lot of people who owned Segways and they were all thinking, 'OK, what can we do with this? What game can we play?' And it soon became obvious. It occurred to them that polo was the way to go."

Wozniak credits teammates Jonathan VanClute and Alex Ko as the real pioneers of the sport and its logistics. "They were responsible for all the rules, and equipment, and the details that you need to lay down when you are inventing something new. They were the guys who went around to little toy stores looking for the ball that would be best for our use."

The originators would eventually decide on a Nerf-style ball and what began as an obscure rec league fostered by a brainy bunch of Silicon Valley's waning techies now enjoys such global trending as to warrant the direction of an official governing body, the International Segway Polo Association. (If you're wondering if it's coincidence that "ISP" is in the acronym of these wireless warriors, consider the fact that Wozniak's jersey number is the simbol for pi.)

Since the inaugural Woz Cup took place in 2006, four different nations (New Zealand, Germany, the United States and Barbados) have played host to the event. Each year -- in a manner not unlike the Olympic or World Cup committee selection process -- the ISPA entertains bids from various intercontinental sites that hope to host the competition on their turf. Last year, the Barbados Flyin' Fish defeated the Silicon Valley Aftershocks to win the Woz Cup in Cologne, Germany. Wozniak says the win helped the island earn hosting rights to this year's event (where the Fish defeated the Germany Blade Pirates in the championship match) but certainly the island's dreamlike landscape helped its cause.

"I think we're going to remember this one for a long time, it being in Barbados," Wozniak said on the phone the day after the tournament's conclusion upon arriving back to his home in the San Francisco Bay Area. "It was nice to play under the lights at night. There was a nice breeze, the temperature was perfect and the people there are so cool and friendly. My team didn't finish as strongly as we had expected to, but we had a nice time. It's hard not to in Barbados."

Wozniak's Sillicon Valley Aftershocks took the title in 2007, but relinquished the throne as both talent and organized teams began to pool around the world.

"I used to be near the top grade of player but I'm kind of near the bottom now," said Wozniak, who was an All-Star pitcher and shortstop in his younger days and received block letters for swimming in high school.

"My team has one or two real superstars. Paul Costa is the guy to watch, he can do everything, he's always figuring where the ball is going to pop loose and he's right there available for the steal. He doesn't over-commit, he stands back and times his approach like a shark. He's our star. But the Barbados Flyin' Fish -- almost every one of them is a superstar-level player. They hit precisely where they want it to go, they are always in control, they can look around the playing field, they know where everyone is, they know what's open, they can beat you with little loopty shots and they can whack it past you and your goalie. That's what I mean when I say the skill level has really amped up."

Despite augmenting talent and dexterity, the sport is still equalized by 12 mph stallions that allow an older generation to hold its own. While the speed is invariable, one potential complication to account for during the five-on-five, four 8-minute chukkas is a dead battery. (But the proud owners of iPhones are no stranger to this scenario and thus, keep a stable of backup mounts ready on the sidelines.)

Woz says it's the unique quirkiness that makes so many tech geeks flock to the sport: "Geeks tend to come from all walks of life. They are more social outsiders than anything else. They are independent and just want to do their own thing. The Segway polo group is largely like that. Some of them work at Apple. My wife works for Apple education. Some of them are more or less engineers. Some run Segway shops or are retired, like myself. It's just fun. At my age it's not about the stuff the world tells you you're supposed to like, it's just about what you like."

Besides inventing the personal computer and riding a Segway (which even Woz admits would be a natural prop for John Hodgeman, the PC guy in Mac commercials), he confessed what he believes to be the geekiest thing he does, "I play 'Tetris' on the original Game Boy all the time. I will go to concerts and while I listen to the music I play Game Boy, usually linked up to either my wife or a friend of mine. I can't help it; I have been doing it at concerts for over 20 years. Every once in a while I'll pause if something gets really good, but usually we just sit there and play and listen. People would think that we're not respecting the music but we are, we can just do both at once."

If you think you're geek enough to ride a Segway and swing a mallet at the same time, The Woz says you'll have to ask Google to locate a league near you.

I was surprised to find that there's not an app for that.

Though something tells me someone, somewhere, is at work on it already.

Mary Buckheit is a freelance writer based in San Diego. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.