It was under totally unexpected circumstances that I learned about one of the strangest sports in the world: Underwater Rugby. Organized in this country by the affiliated clubs of Rugby Subacuatico, players must dive and stay underwater for up to 30 seconds and attempt to place a 3.5 kilogram salt water-filled ball into a basket at the bottom of a 5 meter deep pool.
One could be forgiven in believing that with such an exhausting endeavor, tanks are used. “No, we don’t wear tanks, just fins and masks,” states Adolfo Cobo before heading off to compete in a national tournament.Each game is composed of two 15-minute halves, in which six swimmers on each team must scramble across the length of a pool to overcome a floating goalkeeper. Six other players from each team stand ready to jump in at anytime to swap places with exhausted players.
According to Cobo, “Underwater Rugby is the only 3D team contact sport out there. You have to attack from above and below. You play in extreme conditions and sink up to 5 meters without oxygen.”
The game is both sensory and physical. In a matter of seconds you defend the ball, tackle, and try not to take in water. It’s both team sport “and a silent game.” When having to communicate underwater with your team mates, “it’s all eye contact and sticking to an agreed strategy,” states the athlete.
Giancarlo Castro, coach of Colombia’s women’s team at the Helsinki World Cup in 2011 believes the sport is all about stamina. “You can be the most skillful, the fastest, or the strongest player, but if you don’t have the stamina you won’t win.” Then there’s the critical aspect of teamwork. “Some teams have excellent players and physique, but without coordination, you get nowhere,” states Castro.
People get into this sport for different reasons. “I have swum all my life. I was impressed by Underwater Rugby because I have always enjoyed contact sports and I’ve played rugby before,” says José Abdón Lopéz, chief referee of the Interclub tournament in Bogotá, and an ex-boxer who has been playing for 20 years.
Daniel Arias Zapata, a 21-year old member with ‘Orcas,’ the country’s largest club and based in Medellín, has been playing since age14. He participated in the Berlin Champions Cup in 2011 and took 3rd place. “I love Underwater Rugby because I can travel, meet people and learn about other cultures and languages.”
Since it’s injury-adverse, athletes come from all ages. Coach Castro reckons that it is popular especially with an older generation of swimmers because it’s more than speed. Once athletes start playing Underwater Rugby they don’t seem to stop.
The game began in Köln, Germany, back in 1961, when a diving club came up with the imaginative way to train. In 1978, Underwater Rugby was officially recognised as a sport by the World Underwater Federation. It first was played in Cali back in the 1980s and the capital of Valle de Cauca is home to the nation’s oldest club – ‘Barracudas.’
In Colombia, there are some 600 UWR athletes. From small cities such as Popayán, Pereira, Ibagué and Villavicencio, to the large cities, such as Bogotá, Medellin and Cali, the country ranks second in the world for the number of players, and among the 24 officially affiliated UWR nations.
Since a majority of UWR practicing countries are European, the highly developed UWR community in Colombia has really set the nation apart. Colombia hosted the 5th World Cup in 1995 and is likely to host an upcoming one in 2015. Colombia has also helped spread UWR by sharing expertise with other countries such as Spain, Canada, and Venezuela, thereby helping to play a key role in UWR’s international recognition.
The only foreign player in Bogotá right now is Australian Laura Whitehouse. A member of ‘Castores,’ Whitehouse joined to learn the art of the game: from its rules, to training drills, as well as assisting in the creation of four additional clubs in Sydney last year. “Playing UWR in Bogotá with the high altitude is an entirely different ball game from playing in Sydney,” states this expat.
As I sit in a stadium watching a match, staring at the surface of the water where nothing much happens (as the athletes are under the water most of the time), the action must be beamed on a screen. Sports are spectacles as much as they are competitions. If the limited social element of sports watching can only attract attention of those with a distinct taste for rarity, it’s a constant challenge for the athletes of UWR to build an audience. But it seems to be happening, one thrust of a fin, and one dunk at a time.
Read more of Jessica’s work: onechineseincolombia.com