His photograph in his Facebook account, swimming gear unzipped to show a well-developed chest, was captioned: “From Tin Man to Iron Man.” And in not so many words, the reference to one of L. Frank Baum’s creations in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Tin Man, Dorothy’s literally heart-less sidekick, turning into a version of Stan Lee’s Marvel Comic character [or, if not that, then more aptly the “iron man” triathlete, referring to those who compete in the notoriously demanding triathlon races, consisting of a 2.4 mile (3.9 kilometer or km) swim, 112 mile (180 km) bike, and 26.2 mile (42.2 km) marathon run, organized by the World Triathlon Corp.], illustrates how well a relatively still largely unknown sport has changed Cristopher Bernardo, who, in not so many words, too, by specifically joining the Philippine Underwater Hockey Club (PUHC), shows how the making of the seeming gods of the water is being done.
Underwater hockey – a non-contact sport in which two teams compete to maneuver a puck across the bottom of a swimming pool into goals – was developed in 1954 by one Alan Blake, with the first games played with other divers of the Southsea Sub-Aqua Club, including John Ventham, Jack Willis, and Frank Lilleker, in Portsmouth, England. Formerly referred to as octopush (and still referred as such in much of the UK), Wikipedia.org cites the game’s specific approach as “calling for teams of eight players (hence ‘octo-‘), a bat reminiscent of a tiny shuffleboard stick, called a ‘pusher’ (hence the ‘-push’), an uncoated lead pluck called a ‘squid,’ and a goal known at first as a ‘cuttle,’ but soon thereafter a ‘gully.’”
According to PUHC (puhc.com.ph), underwater hockey is a “very fast moving game of teamwork and strategy.” As it is “played on the bottom of a swimming pool by two teams of six, (with every player wearing) fins, mask, snorkel, a protective glove, ear guards, and headgear, success (or scoring) ultimately depends on teamwork, since no single person can hold their breath that long.” As such, “each team will try to outswim (the other), duck their opponent, and guide a three-pound lead puck towards a goal, an untended 10-foot metal goal post lying at the swimming pool floor – and you do all of these while holding your breath.”
Nonetheless, “although speed is an advantage, it does not necessarily equate to a win. Newbie players usually rely on speed, but as you play longer, you realize it’s more important to keep puck possession, timing, and being able to outsmart your opponent. This is a sport dedicated primarily to having fun in the water. Anyone can play very effectively, and all those willing to try are welcome.”
No wonder that while changes in the rules have been introduced since the sport’s early days (e.g. cutting of numbers of players to six per team, et cetera), it has, undeniably, continued gaining popularity, and is now played by over 40 teams in 17 countries.
The Philippines is actually the first country in Asia to practice underwater hockey, when, in 1979, the head of Dive Asia, a dive shop in Metro Manila, read an article about the sport in a World Underwater Federation (CMAS) magazine. Supposedly, after inquiring and receiving information about game rules and equipment, the first underwater game was held in the shop’s own pool in 1980. By 1984, after it was introduced to the dive club of the University of the Philippines (UP), the UP Divers, who then became the first to find a regular venue for the scrimmage games, the sport has become a regular in the country.
In 1990, the UP Divers incorporated themselves into the Philippine Underwater Hockey Club, eventually evolving to become the PUHC, recognized by the Philippine Olympic Committee and the Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques (World Underwater Federation). The group’s enthusiasm for underwater hockey has brought some PUHC members to places like Cebu, Angeles, Bacolod, and Quezon, so that by October 1998, the first PUHC affiliate, the Bacolod Underwater Hockey Team, was inducted into the PUHC, and the subsequent first game of the Davao Underwater Hockey Club was held in 2002.
Locally, “typically, members come from different areas of sports, such as divers, mountaineers, rowing teams, triathletes, swimmers, and other sports enthusiasts/wannabes. (Thus, underwater) hockey in the Philippines includes people of all ages and shapes,” states the PUHC, which offers lessons (through the Underwater Hockey School) for eight sessions, twice a week (running for a month). This makes the sport something “anyone can get into.”
A friend, an underwater hockey player, invited Bernardo to join an introductory underwater hockey class, Bernardo recalls, adding that THAT was only last year (2008), in April. “As soon as the scrimmage started, I immediately liked it,” he says, smiling, especially since he could recall not being able to swim when he started. “I thought it’s going to develop my confidence in water, and will make me eventually learn how to swim. I just injured my right knee from running and badminton then, (and underwater hockey) is light on the knees, so it was the perfect alternative sport for me.”
The sport was easy to get into, with the main challenges for this software engineer for a product-based IT company in picking up the sport limited mainly to time management. “Time management was key for me to handle my work, my personal life, (and the new) sport,” Bernardo says, adding that things worked out for him since “I prioritized what was important to me, which was the new sport.”
The emphasis on the appeal is important since, for Bernardo, it helped him “develop a sense of team-play. Succeeding in underwater hockey heavily relies on being able to work as one unit and getting familiar with the rest of your teammates. Rarely would it encourage individual plays,” he says.
The sport also keeps him in top shape, since the “fitness level has to be kept up so that you’ll remain competitive. Two hours of continuous training or games is something you couldn’t sustain if you don’t have the proper condition and endurance,” Bernardo says. Then, with a smile, he adds: “Besides, physique-wise, I’d always want to look good on my Speedos.”
It helps, of course, that the Speedos may be the only item to spend on. “You’d only need your swimwear. That’s less clothing to burden your laundry,” Bernardo smiles, adding, turning serious, that underwater hockey “is still considered a low impact sport, thus you are less likely to get the usual sprain, dislocation, injured knees, and others that you get from basketball, running, badminton, and the like.”
And then there’s the sports effect on valuing variations. “You get acquainted with people from all walks of life. And, (still with appreciation of variances, the sport) builds confidence, just like any sport, as it encourages multi-sports, with most people (joining the sport also) runners, triathletes, et cetera,” Bernardo says. “Playing with underwater hockey people means fitness. Everyone would encourage the other to get better with the sport, as well as to try other disciplines. Most people would bring his/her friend to try ultimate frisbee, long distance running, triathlon, and others. We know more than one sport.”
Understandably, “Your entire life will be changed once you get hooked with underwater hockey. You’d live a new life,” Bernardo says.
“People playing underwater hockey have no bias on gender. As both men and women can play at the same time, there’s no issue if people ‘in between’ would be in the same game,” Bernardo says.
In fact, Bernardo knows of three OUT gay men playing the sport regularly, with five others also into it, though not recently actively involved in the local games, and still others who are not out of the closet.
“Maybe some fetishes are satisfied, like (looking at those in) swimwear, since the boys are all in trunks and girls in swimsuits,” Bernardo smiles. Then, seriously: “The sport has a general appeal. So regardless of the gender, underwater hockey is attracting (people, both) newbies and enthusiasts.”
Bernardo believes GLBTQIAs should consider the sport – and joining PUHC, in particular – because “PUHC is a very warm and accommodating community of people. It’s easy to establish new and genuine ties. Most of these are what queers would always value,” he says. It doesn’t hurt, too, that “PUHC people know how to have fun. They play hard, and they party even harder.”
On a personal level, Bernardo is aiming to be “drafted as a center forward in the next Asian Underwater Hockey Championships. Being forward is a challenging task, (since) you need to be aggressive, fast, and constantly strong. Once you’re in the center, you need to be able to direct the play on either of your wings, and utlilize your backs. There are few good center forwards, and their names have a resounding reputation.” On a bigger scale, though, as far as the development of the sort in the country is concerned, PUHC “envisions growth by (adding) about 60 new players a year, especially with the establishment of the all new hockey school.”
“Take note: You need not to be a swimmer (to participate in underwater hockey),” Bernardo says. “A lot of good players started without knowing how to swim – just like me!”
And he has the Facebook photo of the iron man to show how well the sport of underwater hockey has worked for him, and can work for others, too.
For information on PUHC, contact (+63) 9174301728, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit puhc.com.ph.