All the equipment I need before diving in has been laid out neatly before me: a small, silicone-lacquered mit resembling a gardening glove; a mask and snorkel; a rubber-coated lead puck; a pair of fins; a water polo cap and a small, menacing-looking hooked hand-stick that appears to share some of the same DNA as a machete. Oh, and a tube of toothpaste. Tip: smear a bit on your mask in order to avoid excessive loogie hawking.
After getting suited up, my new coach provides a pep talk. He assures me this is a non-contact sport, but apparently my nerves are still showing through, because additional support comes from veteran Mark Sullivan. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says with a calm grim, ‘I’ve only ever known one person to lose a tooth in open play.’ The 36-year-old Brit has been playing for over 20 years, beginning his career at the pool in Portsmouth, England, where the game was invented in 1954.
The idea is to push the puck across the pool floor with your stick into your opponents’ 3m-wide steel goal in teams of six – three forward, three back. The game begins and two of the sport’s most striking quirks become apparent: unlike any other game, underwater hockey is played in three dimensions. Players must be aware of what’s happening around them on all fronts: left, right, above and below. It requires an acute sense of timing and spatial awareness.
Secondly, because it’s played in a kind of aquatic vacuum, hockey eschews one of the fundamentals upon which all other sports exist: oxygen. ‘Imagine playing any other sport holding your breath,’ says the Filipino founder of the Singapore club, Joey Carpio. ‘You need to be a little bit crazy.’
Like most newcomers, timing my dives and regulating my breathing proves difficult. I spend most of the time gasping, exhausted, thinking up face-saving reasons to bail out. It finds me before I find it: a leg cramp. I spend the rest of the game on the sideline, harbouring newfound respect for the players; this game requires huge stamina.
And that’s another happy idiosyncrasy of this misfit sport. Its anaerobic nature asks more of the lungs than it does of brute strength, allowing men and women of all ages to play without any distinct advantage.
I rate my performance at just above appalling. On the way to the hawker centre – most games end with a meal – I ask the youngest player, 16-year-old Jerryl Tawng, how he did on his first try. ‘I was a god,’ he says, laughing, citing the universal law of young people: they can do everything.
‘Have you tried flowball?’ he asks inquisitively. No, I hadn’t, but I’m not sure I have the balls to endure the same kind of sport as this little guy. Singapore Underwater Hockey Club meets every Tue & Fri at 7pm at Queenstown Swimming Complex.
This story first appeared as 'What the puck?' in our Jun 2010 issue.