Pool sharks

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First published on 29 Jun 2007.

In underwater hockey, Marguerita Tan finds a strange sport with a growing cult following.

‘For the uninitiated,’ says Sam Wong, with a completely straight face, ‘holding one’s breath underwater for a long time can be tough.’ He’s not talking about diving; he’s talking about underwater hockey. It all started in 2004 with a forum posting on Fins Online, a diving website. A Filipino working in Singapore asked if anyone would join her in a game of underwater hockey. Curious, a dozen diving enthusiasts made contact to try it out.

Three years on, the Singapore Underwater Hockey Club plays biweekly games and has 70 registered members who range from professionals to students, hail from more than a dozen countries, span all ages from 12 to 66, and about a third of whom are female.

Dave Leong, 34, is one of those who found out about the strange-sounding sport online. He’s been playing for two years but still gets blank stares from friends. ‘All of them look puzzled and amused when I tell them about it for the first time, and then they exclaim ‘Huh?’ What follows is the question ‘How do you play it?’ to which I respond with my well-rehearsed speech. ‘I have to say, it is one of the best icebreakers I know.’

His explanation covers a quick rundown of the sport’s history and play. Basically, it’s what it sounds like: hockey, complete with sticks and pucks, but in this version, the players wear snorkelling gear (fins, masks, snorkels, gloves and head caps) instead of face cages and pads. The game was reportedly created in the 1950s by the British Navy to improve divers’ fitness and mobility in the water. Today, it’s a competitive sport in more than 30 countries.

‘It is designed specifically to build up divers’ anaerobic fitness, meaning the ability to control one’s breath underwater and improve in-water comfort and balance,’ says Wong, 36, who serves as chairman for the Singapore Underwater Federation.

His team mate, Irene Pramudito, 31, agrees. ‘My stamina has improved a lot since I took up the sport three years ago,’ she says. ‘For me, swimming in triathlons is easier now. While in scuba diving, it helps improve air consumption so I can spend more time underwater.’

Although the club has attracted mainly twenty and thirtysomethings with an affinity for water and endurance sports, both Wong and Pramudito assure any interested newbies that all they need to start is some swimming ability and the desire to learn.

‘Have an open mind,’ says Wong. ‘Ultimately, the point is to enjoy the camaraderie of a weird and wonderful bunch of people,’ says Wong. So just turn up with your swimwear. If enough people do, Sam hopes to be able to eventually form a team for the biennial Underwater Hockey World Championships. But just in case, he’s covering all his bets by spearheading a move to get the sport into Singapore’s schools. ‘Once it is taught in schools, that will form a larger base for a possible league,’ he says. ‘It’s a sport that benefi ts both young and old, so that’s our objective for this country.’

For information, see Things to do.

By Marguerita Tan
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