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Rare, half-a-century old sport practiced in Duncanville

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by Lucy Sosa

The Natatorium at Duncanville High School attracts a niche group of dedicated underwater hockey players. Members of the Dallas Under Water Hockey team share their passion for the unusual sport.

Team Aquatoros

 

Equipped with snorkel gear and a foot-long wooden stick, the teams line up for a face off. Between them is a 3-pound coated lead puck. With one hand on the pool wall and one hand on the stick, the players wait for the cue. Within seconds, the pool erupts in a frenzy of splashing flippers, and both teams disappear beneath the surface.

A scrimmage of underwater hockey has begun.

“It’s not a spectator sport unless you’re in the water,” said Kevin Barnes, founder of the Dallas Underwater Hockey team. Introduced to the sport by a college roommate, the senior database architect for Capital One Bank has been playing for over 30 years.

“It’s a very addictive sport, you either love it and want to play it all the time,” said Barnes, who would play everyday if he could but jokes that his wife would file for divorce. “Or you say, ‘Thanks, this is the most craziest thing I’ve ever seen or done, and I don’t ever want to come back and do it again.”

While the concept of underwater hockey might seem strange to some, it’s been around since 1954. According to the British Octopush Association, it started when a group of divers from Portsmouth, England invented the game of “Octopush”. Two teams of eight players used bats, known as “pushers”, to move an uncoated lead puck called “squids”, across the bottom of a pool. It started as an attempt to keep members from leaving the newly formed South Sea Sub-Aqua Club during the winter.

It worked. According to research conducted by Barnes’s teammate Vipa Bernhardt, an estimated 12,048 players in 28 countries compete in underwater hockey, and about 10 of them play at the Duncanville High School Natatorium 13 miles south of Dallas. They meet every Wednesday night for a two-hour scrimmage, and players hail from all over the DFW metroplex.

Newcomer Angelina Hansen is the latest one to catch the underwater hockey bug. She recently discovered the team while browsing the social networking website Meet Up, which facilitates meetings for people with similar interests. The posting for underwater hockey caught her attention.

“I couldn’t pass on that. I’ve never heard of it,” she said about her impromptu decision to show up at the natatorium. During the day, Hansen works as a production coordinator for Agora Entertainment.

The sport is relatively cheap. The Dallas Underwater Hockey teams waive fees for first-timers, then charges $12 for each practice, or $30 a month. Players are only required to bring snorkeling gear and a swimsuit, but the team also lends out equipment to people like Hansen who are experimenting with the sport.

On the surface, the niche sport could be mistaken for a group of hungry sharks thrashing around for dinner, but underneath is a sport with simple rules. Like basketball, underwater hockey is a non-contact sport, and only the stick can touch the puck. But since the puck weighs three pounds, it’s difficult to move it past eight or 10 feet at time.

“There’s no ball-hogging players like there’s in basketball,” said Barnes.

Members of the Dallas Underwater Hockey team might vary in skill, age and gender, but that’s the point. With both male and female players ranging in age from 13 to 54, they embrace their diversity.

“It works well in the water,” said Bernhardt, who has been playing for two years. “Men are stronger, but it’s not about strength as much as it is technique. It’s a good equalizer.” When she’s not in the pool, Bernhardt is working on her postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern.

Blind in one eye, Barnes teases that 13-year-old Soleil Evans plays off his blind spot to steal the puck and score a goal. But Evans thinks it’s her small size that helps her score against her older teammates.

“It helps me a little more,” she said. Evans’s mom also plays on the team and heard about the sport from a physical trainer.

While the team enjoys scrimmaging against each other, they also compete in local and national tournaments. Most recently, they participated in the annual “Battle at Altitude” in Denver.

Since the sport is played completely under water, players must gauge each other’s body language to determine when a teammate will emerge for air. If an offensive player is driving the puck towards the goal, teammates need to be prepared to take over.

“That’s the beauty of it. You have to work with your teammates,” said Bernhardt.

Underwater hockey is as challenging as each player makes it. Offensive players graze the bottom of the pool in constant pursuit of the puck, while defensive players can choose to take it easy.

“It’s a fantastic workout in that it can be both teamwork and individual,” said Barnes, who said he gets his week’s worth of exercise during the Wednesday night scrimmage.

After losing five to six players last year to college graduations, job changes, and one member’s move to Tokyo, the team encourages anyone with a bathing suit to grab a stick and dive in. Recently, Bernhardt has been reaching out to recruits through social media, and Evans hands out fliers at her middle school.

“I want to bring my equipment to school, but my mom won’t let me,” Evans said, hoping to recruit friends.

Under water hockey isn’t the only aquatic sport practicing in Duncanville High School’s Natatorium on Wednesday nights. The team shares the pool with a deep-water aerobics class. Instructor Crystal Lanham said the neighboring action puzzles new classmates. When she tells them it’s underwater hockey practice, they react like most people.

“They’re like, ‘wow how can they do that?’” she said. “I think it’s awesome.”

For more information about the Dallas Under Water Hockey Team, visit http://dallasunderwaterhockey.com/

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