a somewhat different sport

simply breathtaking UNDERWATER HOCKEY a somewhat different sport

text and images by Stephanie Plon

Underwater hockey? Say that again. No-one at home is going to believe me he said and shoved his video camera into my face. I must have looked somewhat sceptical myself when I first went along to an underwater hockey practise some seven years ago.

Who first invented this game is still under debate today. Apparently a few South African spearfishermen got very bored one winter when the diving conditions were bad, jumped into the nearest pool and kept holding their breaths. And since that gets a bit boring they took a couple of field hockey sticks and a puck with them and voilà – underwater hockey was invented. However, another version claims it was invented by an Englishman called Alan Blake in 1956. In the early days the players used long hockey sticks. But since they were not easy to manouever under water they were quickly reduced to a length of about 30cm. And while the international change to the short sticks happened in 1981, the shape of the sticks, and hence the name of the sport, stayed the same.

Two teams with six players each and equipped with masks, fins, snorkels and sticks fight for a 1.3 kilo, lead puck. This is similar to an ice hockey puck, just coated in plastic so that it glides easily across the pool bottom. Good players have perfected their technique in such a way that the puck easily lifts off the pool bottom, flies up to three metres through the water in order to end up with a slight klunk in the goal bin.

The goal is a 1.5 metre wide metal trough into which the puck slides. And since the hard work under water is quite strenuous even on the fittest players there are another four players at the side of the pool waiting patiently for substitution. This occurs continously in order to catch a breath of air and some quick recovery before plunging into the game yet again.

Underwater hockey is less of a spectator sport – at best one can spot a few fins and behinds poking out of the water. And although this is the reason it is not considered a mainstream sport, underwater hockey is popular world-wide with 27 countries playing. Southern Hemisphere countries like South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have a strong following since the sport is already offered at schools level.

World championships have been held every two years since 1980. Three categories (Open Mens, Open Womens and Masters Womens leagues teams) can only be composed of members of the same sex, but the Masters Open will allow mixed teams. Seventeen countries took part in the last world championships held in Calgary, Canada. On these occasions underwater cameras are used to project the match onto a screen so that the clashes of rivalling teams can easily be followed at pool side. Some spectators prefer to follow the game live under water – where else do you find a sports fan equipped with mask and snorkel following a match breathlessly-literally? The court is the length of a 25-metre pool and is played in two 15-minute halves. Underwater hockey is a rather strategic game and strongly based on positional play. In addition, there is the three dimensionality of the game – although it is played on the pool bottom, the puck can easily be stolen by other players sneaking down from above.

Although the game was initially quite rough, the trend has been towards more flexibility, speed and well-planned game tactics. To be in the right place at the right time is the secret of the best teams.

The women’s teams are ahead of the men’s in this respect. Although both play hard games, the ladies rely more on team play and tactics rather than pure strength. Nevertheless, one gets a few bruises every now and then, but they are more regarded as trophies, tended with dedication and exhibited with a certain sense of pride.

In general, underwater hockey players are keen divers and swimmers and probably would have preferred to be born with gills. Little can distract them from their enthusiasm for their sport and there is a lot of fun involved.

June 2004 New Zealand will be the focus of the watchful eyes of every enthusiastic underwater hockey player on the planet when Christchurch’s QEII pool will host the underwater hockey world championships.

However, a first measuring of strengths will happen at the Transtasman tournament in Hobart this year. This event alternates with the world championships and is traditionally considered a preparation for the big competition by its participating nations: South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. And although both Australia and South Africa are often ranked as the favourites, New Zealand has a proud track record in this sport. The highlight was the gold medal for the Open Women’s team at the world championship in Amersfoort, Holland, in 1988, while the Men’s Open teams have won silver both in Wellington in 1992, when New Zealand hosted its first world championships, and last year in Calgary, Canada.

This recent silver medal together with a double bronze medal win for both Men’s and Women’s Masters teams in Hobart in 2000 is a promising result that next year the competing teams should be prepared for the strength they will have to battle when New Zealand plays on home ground (or should I say in home-water?).

And what is the attraction, you might ask. I personally have always been fascinated with the silence in which this sport is carried out. Because although you see some real action happening, especially at tournaments, and a few word-fights might start above water, under water it is silent as it is difficult to simultaneously hold your breath and shout. Once you can enjoy this silence and relax completely it is almost meditative to watch the bodies swirling through the water, leaving a trail of air bubbles behind. And only then you realize that perhaps it would be a good idea to surface and get a gulp of air yourself.

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