Underwater rugby: tough but silent

Michael Restin
Zurich, on 17.04.2019
Translation: Eva Francis
A goal at the bottom of a pool. A buoyant ball. Underwater rugby is weightless and tough; full on and oddly silent. A fascinating sport that baffles the senses. Mine, at least.

Feeding time at the shark tank? That’s what it feels like. Piccolo, Sabine, Adi, Hitch and the others are circling around me like hungry sharks. However, they’re not fighting for a piece of meat, but for a ball filled with salt water. They’re trying to get that ball into the opponent’s goal. One that doesn’t look like a goal. It’s a heavy metal basket that’s secured to the bottom of Oerlikon’s indoor swimming pool, at a depth of five metres. Its tattered rim shows that underwater rugby packs a punch.

To me, that's the death zone down there. After a few seconds there, I run out of air. I spend most time floating above this zone like a lazy sea turtle. I’m very close to ball and sometimes, for a second, I’m in the thick of the action.

It’s not easy for a beginner to find your way into this game. Too little oxygen, too many questions. What am I doing here? Where should I go? What did I want to do? Oh yes, catch air. Breathe. Collect my thoughts. In the header video, Sabine explains what underwater rugby is all about. Check it out, it’s worth it. Welcome to USZ Zürich, Zurich’s Underwater Rugby Club.

Who are these people?

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My underwater rugby experience is contradictory and interesting right from the start. When a guy shakes your hand like a hulk and introduces himself as «Piccolo», you can't help but wonder who else you’ll be meeting.

Luckily, the people who drop in one by one aren't all giant-like, strongmen swimmers, but a diverse mixture of young and old, men and women. Some strong, others agile. Under water, we're not all the same, but the differences are less noticeable, as hits are cushioned and raw force is slowed down.

Piccolo grande

Still, Piccolo's hands look like he robbed the food bowl from a clowder of hungry cats. They're covered in scratches. «Short fingernails are a good idea or you'll end up looking like this,» he says and smiles. Looks like not everyone at the Swiss Championships had short fingernails. But Piccolo and his team won the title.

The Swiss champions are by no means an elite circle of freaks. Newcomers like myself are welcome to training sessions. Underwater rugby is a sport for anyone who likes diving and ball sports. Or, as Piccolo puts it, «a whacky team sport in four dimensions.» He must know, after all, he's been with the club for 25 years. At that time, he was the shorter of two guys named Marcel. That's how he got the name «Piccolo», which has stuck until today. His expertise, however, is grande.

The fact that players move in three dimensions makes underwater rugby quite unique. Apart from Harry Potter's Quidditch, that is. But what about the fourth dimension? «Air,» Piccolo says and touches his throat. The more air you have, the more time you have. That's your personal space where you can make a difference. Essentially, the sport is an endless sequence of personal game overs that must be compensated for by your teammates. No air? No chance.

The team manifesto. No. 1 (every team member is important) doesn’t apply for me, but I was welcomed with open arms.
The team manifesto. No. 1 (every team member is important) doesn’t apply for me, but I was welcomed with open arms.

Combat swimmers vs. scuba tourists

Time for a team talk. We're wearing blue water polo caps with ear protection and velcro wristbands of the same colour to keep track of who's who when we're all tangled up under water. Blue? My team. White? Opponent.

With their strapped-on goggles, sawn-off snorkels and speed-enhancing carbon fins, they all look like a Marines Special Forces unit. And then there’s me: the typical tourist on a lookout for marine animals, wearing wide shorts and squeaky yellow gear. «There are five of us on our team – and him,» I hear as we hang from the edge of the pool before the training match begins.

I give a puff through my snorkel, half-laughing, half-agreeing, and adjust my goggles. They're right, I wouldn't count on me either. I'm pretty sure most of this game will be taking place well below my level. Water level, that is.

Sabine has her eye on me and is playing for two.
Sabine has her eye on me and is playing for two.

Forward, back and goalie

Where am I playing? I’m made a forward. It's better to have a forward regularly rushing to the surface to catch air than to be left with gaps in the back line. The other two positions aren't an option:

The back is positioned in front of the basket and aims to prevent the opposition from approaching the goal. The last player, the goalie, lies or sits on top of the basket to block open attacks on the goal. Ass on basket. This might sound and even funny, but it's hard work. Nobody's allowed to hold on to the basket, not even the goalie, while the opponents are pushing, shoving and pulling towards the goal.

We’re playing six a side: two players share a position and must trust each other to be there when one runs out of air. This means coordinating breathing breaks. Bad news for Sabine. She’s my fellow forward.

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And suddenly there’s the ball

«Just see how it goes,» she says. Then we dive down towards the ball that's waiting on the bottom of the pool. The game begins. I marvel at all the wriggling arms, bodies and legs. The only pressure I feel is on my ears, as I'm not expecting much from myself. If I can do something, great, but I don't have to. I'm trying to stay close to Sabine. That's difficult enough.

And then suddenly the ball, which is surprisingly easy to pass, lands in my hands. Until just now, I liked the rule that players may only attack the player with possession of the ball. Not anymore. All I can hear is my surprised and quick breathing while all I see, limited by the frame of my diving goggles, is a small section of the pool. Tackles are allowed from any side. With the blurry blue of lots of water in front of my eyes, this would be a great moment to tackle me.

A pro would now accelerate and make the most of the time and space. What do I do? I spin around once and pass the ball off to the next best person, then rush to the surface to breathe. Did the ball arrive? I don't know. At least I wasn't tackled.

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Time to breathe

Every time I dive down, I feel a little bit more comfortable. I'm beginning to get the game and feel the rhythm. I'm hit by fins and bodies that are making their way up or down. My heart is racing; my lungs are burning. We're alive and kicking, so to speak. And it's fun. Only the silence still irritates me. There's no screaming, no frustration and no cheering to accompany what I'm seeing. This feels strange, as this silent film is actually a tough battle.

Only after goals or fouls everyone comes to the surface and cheers, discusses or waits until the game continues. The game and the emotions are neatly separated: one happens in the water, the other up above the surface. «Well done,» Sabine calls to me, while I'm gasping, spluttering and swallowing water, «and don't be afraid to grab a firm hold of someone if they're in possession of the ball.» That's easier said than done, because the pros I'm playing against are here and gone so fast, always spinning and wriggling around and don't allow me to get hold of them.

They're completely in their element. I'm not. But I can sense what it is about this sport that they love so much. Shaken off by a back again, I swallow water and the taste of chlorine makes me think outside the box. Niche sports aren't niche sports anymore once you get involved. Diving down and being in the middle of it changes your perspective on a sport. During the match, I was hopelessly lost, fighting myself more than my opponents – and still I won. I gained a new experience and shared it with interesting people. It was truly the best underwater rugby match of my life.

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Michael Restin
Michael Restin
Editor, Zurich
Sports scientist, high-performance dad and remote worker in the service of Her Majesty the Turtle.

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