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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.

He won the 200-yard freestyle Sonoma County League title this spring and went to the North Coast Section meet in the 100-yard backstroke.

He also swims with the Santa Rosa Neptunes. He’s been a free diver for years.

But he had never heard of underwater hockey until his dad, Scott, came home with a flyer for local pickup games a few years ago.

Scott Zeigler said he’d been spearfishing with a friend who was feeling out of shape. The friend pulled out the underwater hockey flyer, suggesting it might be a good way to increase his dive fitness.

Scott Zeigler assumed it was a joke.

“I’m thinking they want you to show up and they are going to pants you,” he said. “I’ve been around the water my whole life and I’ve never heard of it. I went and fell in love with it. It’s such a gas.”

Kind of like accumulated carbon dioxide in your lungs.

Scott Zeigler, who along with his son suits up with the Sharks, emphasized the team aspect because no one player can stay at the bottom of the pool for too long hogging the puck. Everybody’s got to breathe, you know.

And the fact that while the puck generally stays close to the pool floor (though it can be flicked), the action can happen from above and all around.

“It’s completely different,” Ben Zeigler said. “It’s 3-D, almost 4-D. You can come on a play from almost any angle.”

Which also means it’s not terribly uncommon to take a fin to the face or something similar.

“You can knock your mask off by accident or get hit on your snorkel. That’s uncomfortable, not being able to see or breathe,” Ben Zeigler said.

Or talk.

“Under water, there is very little chance to communicate with your teammates,” he said.

Trash talk probably happens with a well-timed hand gesture.

There are just so many mysteries to a newbie, but the Zeiglers see nothing but potential.

“I would love to see underwater hockey become an Olympic sport, to get it into the mainstream more,” Ben Zeigler said. “It’s pretty close right now. I think there are 64 countries with national teams.”

But the “Say what?” factor remains pretty high. Ben Zeigler says he gets that reaction a lot.

But that’s OK for the Zeiglers; they are good pitchmen. Ben Zeigler calls his dad a “missionary” for the sport, which puts him in a bit of a Catch-22.

One of the things that Scott Zeigler says he loves about it is the purity — no sponsors, no money. Heck, very few fans.

“There is nothing other than the sport. There’s nothing,” he said.

People play because they love it. That’s all.

And perhaps they play because it’s fun to watch people’s faces as they explain what it is, exactly, that they do.

Around El Molino, teachers and classmates who mean well will put their toe in the proverbial water and ask him Ben Zeigler about it.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I heard you play underwater rugby or something,’” he said.

He’ll politely correct them: underwater hockey.

“It’s a thing.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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