Underwater What?

* This article originally appeared in the Lyme Times on April 7th, 2007

I recently had the pleasure of squeezing into some flippers, a mask and snorkel and partaking in a good old-fashioned game of underwater hockey, held every Sunday evening at The East Lyme High Aquatic and Fitness Center.

Before playing, I imagined that some local nut had invented an absurd game that people could be bad at without anyone knowing better. I pictured laughter-bubbling skirmishes at the bottom of the pool, people coming up for air and soda and chips and snot-nosed high fives.

When Pete Papathanasiou, the head of the Southeastern Connecticut Underwater Hockey League, handed me ear protectors (like those for water polo), a protective glove (padded on the outside) and an old wooden stick (about a foot long and worn smooth at the edges from scrapes along the pool bottom), I started to get nervous.

Then the game started. Men and women, teenagers to grandfathers, moved in water-thrashing packs. They hovered on the surface and then plunged twelve feet below to intercept the puck, which is about four pounds of lead coated with slick plastic. They used darting weaves to slide the puck along the bottom, one shimmying player leaving the puck for a teammate, who then did the same. Teams are marked by stick color, black or white.

I stayed on the edges of the action. It was like watching another species—not quite porpoise, not quite human. They spent twenty, thirty seconds underwater, dodging sticks and sweeping around the walls of the deepest end of the pool.

“I like it because it’s a three dimensional sport,” Mark McClain, who travels from Deep River to play in the weekly games, said. “You have someone coming from above you, below you, and from the side.”

Like McClain said, the sport forces you to be aware of all sides and depths. But as we normally live and play in the third dimension, I’m tempted to say underwater hockey approaches the fourth. When I tried to make a kick for the puck, delving towards the bottom of the deep end, I broke through to an unfamiliar place.

Senses eluded me. Breathing out my nose, I squinted through foggy goggles to see the puck. Bodies rubbed and circled by me, flipping up from down. My heart pounded, my ears throbbed and my lungs burned from the pressure. I lost most sense of time. I felt like I was under for a minute, but it might have been only a few seconds.

“The learning curve is quick,” Evan Wilke, 22, from Old Saybrook, reassured me. “But it’s like golf—easy to learn, impossible to master.”

Wilke has been playing for almost five years and he still considers himself a novice.

“I’ve been doing it on and off since freshmen year of college, but some of these guys have been doing it for twelve, fifteen years or more.”

A few of the players combine with a team from Stratford to form a state team that competes in regional and national tournaments.

“At the national level the teams are really good,” Papathanasiou said. “You’ve got college teams that practice all the time, and teams that play together everyday. So we usually get our butts whipped.”

I struggled to touch the puck. I took breaks to catch my breath when I would stay on the surface to determine if certain people had gills behind their ears. I was mainly interested in Papathanasiou, who has a fishy sounding name, and seemed to go minutes without surfacing for breaths. I swam close to him but he moved too quickly to get a good look. He gathered the puck, eluded a defender and darted uphill along the side of the pool, stomach skimming the bottom. He turned on the afterburners and left everyone in his wake, flicking the puck into the goal, a curved metal bracket about three meters wide that sits on the bottom of the pool. A low metallic thud rang under water.

Papathanasiou, like many of the players, is at home in water. He spends his summers hunting big fish with spear guns. He currently holds the spearfishing world record for striped bass, 60.5 lbs.

I wouldn’t recommend trying underwater hockey without having significant practice with a mask and snorkel. Playing efficiently requires repeated cycles from the surface to the bottom of the pool.

But you do learn quickly. By the end of the day I think I executed a pass, flicking the puck with my wrist, though I went up for air before seeing if it reached my teammate. Experienced players can flick the puck about ten feet underwater.

If you are a good swimmer with a competitive spirit then the sport might suit you. Regardless, its dynamic nature has a strong pull for anyone interested in something new. It combines elements and movements that no other sport can.

You also need to hold your breath a lot, which adds an almost Zen element to the sport. You become acutely aware of your inner organs. As your heart and lungs fail you over and over, you learn to control natural urges to escape. Composure and breath control are critical. Go up for air or keep pushing towards the goal.

“It’s the strangest most physically challenging game I’ve ever played,” Wilke said.

But despite the physical demands of the sport, the required endurance and contact, there is a gracefulness and softness about a sport played in water. No one weighs very much. You slip off and around one another. You hover and flip in place.

“You don’t have the physical impact of a sport like football or basketball with people running into you,” McCain said. “There’s contact but it’s very different.”

This is part of the reason anyone–men or women, young or old–can play. And the group at the Aquatic Center, which comes from all over Southeastern Connecticut (Montville, Old Saybrook, East Lyme, Waterford), welcomes anyone who wants to try it out.

*For more information on Southeast Connecticut Underwater Hockey, and on the rules and history of the sport, visit secconuwh.com

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