By Kristy Barry
Photos by Karen Sterling.
Underwater rugby is an American Gladiator experience with glimpses of water polo–a brutal, near-drowning experience courtesy of the Quincy Narwhals team near Boston, who were nice enough to rough up my sister Katie and me in the spirit of learning the sport firsthand.
I figured I’d fare well, considering I was co-captain of my high school swim team and I’ve played water polo before. But I was really elected for the spot for boosting team morale at 5 am practices, come to think of it, and when you’re holding the polo ball, you’re blessed with the precious gift of breathing.
It’s foolish to think that any kind of swimming training will give you an edge on other players. Unless you’re a Navy Seal and training requires being held underwater for five minutes without an oxygen tank.
You need big lungs and more importantly, thick skin, for when you get kicked in the head. In the underwater scuffle for possession, people have been punched, bruised, or banged up with a bad case of swimmer’s ear.
One woman told me that she’s fortunate to have played with her friends and family for so long because they would notice when she got knocked out, then passed out underwater and started sinking to the bottom of the pool… and sensed they needed to save her.
Someone popped me in the mug, ramming my mask into my face, but I could not tell who it was and if they nabbed me with a fin, a knee, a hand, or a headbutt. For all I was aware of amidst the topsy turvy melee of water, swimmers, and swirling colors, I could’ve swam right into the wall.
This isn’t a game of Clue. You don’t sit around trying to figure out if it was Mrs. White in the Study with the Wrench, you keep swimming with an unspoken permission to do some rough-housing yourself.
The brain-boggling didn’t take me out of the game but I imagine that’s what a concussion feels like. My vision was a little blurry that following week. I perpetually forgot what I was doing and recalling what someone had told me just minutes prior.
Ah, to learn something the hard way. Is there any other way to learn? I don’t grasp how hard this sport is until I’m six feet under, so to speak, with muscular men in Speedos charging at me like sharks, just with hairy chests and funny accents.
To get started, everyone gears up with two fins, a one-piece bathing suit, a snorkel, mask, and specially made swim caps with protective ear covers and with different colors to distinguish opposing teams. Each team consists of twelve players, with six competing and six serving as substitutes. The ball is rubber and filled with a salt, sugar, and water solution, weighing about five pounds all-in-all.
Kristy taking a breather after a kickass match.
Instead of uprights in land rugby, swimmers fight to get the ball into the opponents’ metal bin fastened up to 10 feet deep at the bottom of the pool.
Regulation games last for 30 minutes, so timing is everything. You have to get into a groove of hovering on the surface, cycling air through your snorkel and sensing when a teammate needs to sacrifice the ball for air. You can be gripping the ball with both hands, tucking the ball into your body and charging towards the goal like a football player barreling for the endzone, then you feel the lack of oxygen. Your head caves in like a vice grip is cranking around your head tighter and tighter but your instinct is to score the ball that you fought so hard to bring two feet away from the basket-goal.
Eventually, I relinquish the ball to a nearby teammate, surrender visions of goal-scoring glory and pamper myself at the surface with deep, luxurious breaths of air. The men, big and burly, have a size advantage but the women can wiggle out of strongholds with such limber grace and into small nooks tucking the ball close to their body.
Underwater Rugby is played internationally, with contests featuring countries such as Germany, Colombia, Norway. There are a few clubs in the United States, such as the Quincy Narwhals in Boston, that compete in international matches.
Perhaps an underwater rugby team will be formed in Manhattan. When it does, I will be there to boost morale for this challenging game that turns swimming into a team sport and an underwater test of grit, gills, and knowing when to just let go and breathe.
For more, check out Kristy in conversation on the BTR Sports podcast, every Sunday on BreakThru Radio.