It’s a thing. I swear.
Underwater hockey is a sport. It’s legitimate: there are national and international governing bodies; there are domestic and international tournaments.
And as it turns out, the Redwood Empire is a veritable hotbed of the sport. Sebastopol, to be specific.
The Sebastopol Sharks sent a team to the U.S. national tournament in Cincinnati this week. Last year, a local squad came in fourth place in a national coed tournament. And next month, El Molino rising senior Ben Zeigler, who trains with the Sharks as well as with a club in San Francisco, will represent the United States on the under-19 men’s team at the World Age Group Underwater Hockey Championship in Tasmania.
Still, even that part sounds made up. Tasmania?
But Zeigler and other boosters say underwater hockey is no joke.
“It’s one of the most fun sports that I’ve ever played,” Zeigler, a competitive swimmer, said.
The gist of it is this: Players are equipped with fins, mask, protective cap, snorkel and mouth guard, rubberized glove and a short stick about 12 inches long that looks ominously like a knife. The puck is weighted and coated so it won’t damage the pool. The action takes place at the bottom of the pool, but players come up for air frequently, before using dolphin kicks to get to the bottom again.
It is typically played six versus six and halves last 15 minutes. Goals are akin to metal troughs at each end of the pool.
In watching a Sharks practice this week, run of play lasts about one minute before a goal is scored and entire teams come up for air.
I did my best, but truth be told, it’s not the most spectator-friendly sport. I kept my eye on Zeigler and his No. 7 cap, but I kept losing him.
Watching a scrimmage from the pool deck was at times like visiting an aquarium at feeding time.
I could see graceful bodies moving far below the surface, then suddenly there would be bubbles, splashing and kicks at the surface as players strained for air and dove back below.
They would come up and cheer each other, but I was unclear as to why.
When one of the competitors — who feared the teams were lopsided — asked me not to report the score, I assured her I wouldn’t. Probably because I had no idea what the score was.
With that in mind, it’s hard for me to describe Zeigler’s talents or his style of play. So I asked an expert.
Gregory Appling, a member of the Sebastopol Sharks and coach of the U.S. men’s elite team, has been playing underwater hockey since 1996. He was the de facto boss at Ives Pool Tuesday night. So I asked him about Zeigler’s skills.
“He’s got speed and strength,” he said. “He’s got long arms, so he’s got good reach. His puck skills are getting better. Being young and fast and long is what really helps him excel.”
Although Appling insisted that one need not have a swimming background to thrive in underwater hockey, Zeigler came to the game with a swimmer’s resume.