Photo by Elia Santmaria
It may not be as rough as above ground, but underwater ruby isn't a walk in the park either
A referee in scuba gear places a ball on the centre line beneath five metres of water. The whistle blows, and 12 players dive in. The first one to reach the ball grabs it and undulates rapidly toward a steel basket at one end of the pool while players grasp and grapple at each other. Forty-eight limbs slither in the water like a school of eels struggling for a single tunnel.
Within the chaos, the referee spots a foul. He signals to the surface and another whistle blows. The offended player, whose mask had been mistakenly grabbed, now has 45 seconds to try and score a goal against one defender from the opposing team. The penalty player, a woman, races downward from the surface against another man. He manages to reach the basket first and covers it with his back, kicking his flippers upward against the force of his own buoyancy. She swims nimbly around him until she finds her opening. With an assertive flip of her free hand, she widens the gap and sinks the ball. Goal.
The game is Underwater Rugby (UW-Rugby), a relatively unknown sport that originated in Germany, in 1961. It is now played in most Nordic countries as well as a smattering of others, from Central America to the Pacific rim. The newest country to join the club is Spain, where it took root over two years ago in the province of Valladolid. A short time later, in February 2005, a club was formed in Barcelona by five Colombians. The team has currently grown to include 15 players, approximately half Catalan and half Colombian, though other nationalities frequently join them to train.
“It’s a sport that has allowed foreigners to integrate into the community,” said Andres Erazo, an architect and captain of BCN Rugby Subaquatic. “Moreover, there’s no sexual discrimination between men and women. Underwater, everybody plays the same. Of the 15 players we have, eight are women.”
Elia Santamaria, a Catalan administrator who speaks perfect English, chimed in, enthusiastically. “Playing with men is great. Underwater, we are really equal.”
Another woman on the team, Paula Loaiza, also an architect, nods. “There’s not so much aggression. It’s a contact sport, but the contact is less forceful. A man may have a little more strength, but a person who seems physiologically weaker in actuality could be more agile. It’s all very relative. Sure, in the beginning, when they bump into you it can be kind of a shock. But it’s fun, because you quickly realize that you can do the same to them.”
Possibly the most unique aspect of the game is that it’s played in three dimensions, not so much a playing field as it is a playing cube, between three and a half and five metres deep, eight to 12 metres long and wide. The ball weighs two kilos, and is filled with salt water to a density that permits a velocity of about one metre per second.
The objective is to sink the ball into the opposing team’s basket. A team is composed of 15 players, with six in the water during play, the rest in reserve. It is played in two 15-minute periods with a five-minute rest in between. Each player has a partner, and the two alternate between re-oxygenating on the surface and playing in the depths. So, at any time, there are usually only three members from each team in play.
Santamaria cautioned that no more than one minute underwater is advisable. “Down there, it’s tough, and you have to alternate players constantly.” Goal keepers, who generally spend the whole game covering the basket with their backs, have a particularly graceful choreography in the way they switch up. The replacement dives straight down and performs a pas de deux, flipping positions.
Barcelona Subaquatic has competed in three international tournaments so far. Andres Erazo would like to see Barcelona host a tournament, which he believes would have the added benefit of bringing tourist money into the city. However, for that to happen, they need permission from the Ajuntament. And, for that, they need to be affiliated with the Federació Subaquàtiques. “It’s a vicious circle,” he said. “We can’t enter into the Federació because it’s a new sport, and they won’t recognize it.”
“We’re open to new sports,” countered Mariano Escartín, director of the Federació Catalana d’Activitats Subaquàtiques. “We just have to meet and agree on how to organise a committee. All they have to do is come here and find us.”
This lack of official enthusiasm about reaching put to the new sport also translates into some difficulty in training during the winter. For nine months they train Wednesday and Friday evenings on Montjuïc at the Piscines Picornell, which officially denies that UW-Rugby has anything to do with its facilities. The players are members of the pool, however, and despite being discouraged from full practice using baskets, they still manage to work on their ball-handling.
Andres sighed in exasperation. “The problem is the public pools are administered by private companies. And what interests private companies is money. It’s not in their interest to officially grant use of the pool to a minority sport when another sport might want it later.” It’s a theory that is denied by Maxim Costa, technical director of the Piscines Picornell “There is no type of aggression against any legitimate sport here. I have put these obstacles to their playing here because the doctors we have on staff have declared that there is a tremendous risk of apnea. And as long as this risk exists, I will not facilitate the use of my pool for this activity.”
Costa’s fear of apnea was disputed universally among those associated with the sport. “I have never in my 23 years of practicing the sport [heard] any information about major accidents within underwater rugby,” said Søren Neubert, UW-Rugby Commission President of the world underwater federation CMAS. “There have only been reported minor injuries [such] as broken fingers and injured eardrums and injuries in that category. No drowning, no one has died when practing underwater rugby.”
Fortunately, BCN Rugby Subaquatic is not discouraged from full training with submerged baskets during the summer months, when they practice outdoors twice a week at the Piscina Casal del Cris in Espluges de Llobregat, though they recognise that to be truly competitive they should train three or four times a week. “The objective at this stage is to have fun rather than be too competitive,” said Paula Loaiza, although BCN Rugby Subaquàtic intends to represent Spain in the next 2007 World Championship this summer in Italy.
For those interested in trying it out, the cost is accessible. Fifty euros will buy decent flippers, mask and snorkel. Aside from that, there is membership or admittance to the pool. And, anybody choosing to participate in a tournament abroad can pass a pleasant weekend in a European city for around €250.