Mountain View's Eagle Park Pool has been the training site for the lone underwater rugby team on the West Coast, the San Francisco Giant Sea Bass. And this co-ed group is looking to grow its ranks by recruiting and training new members interested in getting their feet wet.
At this point in any conversation, team president Cy Katrak is ready for the typical response: "What the heck is underwater rugby?"
To hear its fans describe it, it's a sport like none other. Two teams of six swimmers strap on fins and dive in the deep end of the pool to play a game that blends soccer, basketball and traditional rugby. The catch is it's played entirely submerged — save for the vital moments when a team member needs to surface for air. It's a full contact sport that allows grabs, pulls and the occasional underwater dogpile.
"It's more fun than any other sport I've ever played," Katrak said. "The amount of spacial awareness and the number of tactics this game opens up makes it more interesting than your typical land sport.
After going through that brief explainer, Katrak says he is usually met with wide eyes and a glassy stare. But about one in 20 people who hear about the game clearly want to give it a try, he said. For some, it soon becomes an obsession.
Katrak, a 30-year-old software engineer, first learned about the sport in 2014, when he struck up a conversation with a player while doing laps at a pool. Like many of his teammates, Katrak was a former competitive swimmer in his school days who just happened to be searching for a new sport.
As the sun was setting on Tuesday, May 30, about a dozen team members arrived at the Rengstorff Park pool for their biweekly practice session. Normally, the team practices at Eagle Park Pool, which they say is deeper and better suited for the sport, but it was closed that day due to a faulty pump. The team chose Mountain View for most of its practices mainly because the city has the best pool facilities available in the area.
The club was a motley group — about 10 barrel-chested men and two athletic women, ranging in age from 20s to 50s. Many members were foreign-born and living in the Bay Area due to jobs in the tech industry. Watching the group was a pair of teenage lifeguards who seemed a little outmatched by the brawny swimmers.
Getting ready, team coach Martin Linder lugged the gear into the pool, including two baskets that served as the goals in the game. Then he tossed in the coconut-sized ball, which is filled with saltwater so that it slowly sinks to the floor of the pool.
Like so many other sports, the object of underwater rugby is for a team to get the ball into the opposing team's goal through maneuvering, passing or any other clever tricks. Punches, kicks and equipment grabs are prohibited, but pretty much anything else is fair game.
What makes underwater rugby special, enthusiasts say, is that the game fully encompasses all three dimensions. Talented swimmers can somersault and pivot to quickly change direction. Underwater passes can go forward or backward, as well as up or down. And guiding the game's whole strategy is your lungs — you can't defend your goal if you're swimming up to take a breath.
"It's unique in that you can play in all three dimensions — that really makes for a sport and a lot of fun," Linder said. "Even if you're not extremely athletic you can be a good team player if you do smart moves."
A veteran member of the team, Linder has been playing the game for about 11 years after picking it up in Berlin. The game is much more popular in Europe, where there were about 40 teams. Meanwhile, North America has only 10, almost all on the East Coast.
Unlike most sports, underwater rugby is often played with men and women on the same team. Jacqui Hayes, a San Francisco education product manager, said she first got introduced to the game in 2008 in Sydney, Australia. It was a pickup match with milk crates loaded with rocks in a pool, she recalled. But something about the game just clicked, she said.
"It ended up up being one of the most fun games I've ever played — I ended up going every week from then on," she said.
Some women are deterred by underwater rugby because it's a contact sport and they feel outgunned by the aggressive male players, she said. Hayes pointed out this makes it difficult to draw in more women to the sport, although she credited her team for being very inclusive. Like most other sports, high-level competitions tend to end up in male and female divisions.
For a practice match, the San Francisco Giant Sea Bass squared off into two teams — white caps and blue caps. Everyone launched into the game, which quickly turned into a cacophony of flopping fins and splashing.
From above the surface of the water, it is impossible to see the action of the submerged game — it all looked like a blurry mess. The difficulty in showcasing underwater rugby has been an ongoing challenge since it limits the sport's exposure to the wider public.
Many teams try to help spectators enjoy the game by mounting underwater GoPro cameras along the bottom of the pool. In high-profile games like a championship match, referees and many in the audience will often don goggles and dive in the pool to watch the game from the sidelines.
At Rengstorff pool, it was only clear who had scored when players all surfaced at the same time, huffing to catch their breath. After one goal against his team, Krzysztof Barczynski, a software engineer from Poland, admonished his teammates for all catching their breath at the same time, leaving their goal unguarded: ("There must've been five of us at the surface when they scored!")
For the casual observer, the heart of the game becomes more clear by watching the many underwater videos of matches that are available online. Stepping away from his practice match, Katrak clicked a laptop over to YouTube videos from last weekend's 17th North American Underwater Rugby Tournament in Montreal. About 10 members from his club competed in the event, but they struggled to avoid making mistakes against their seasoned competitors. They ended up taking fifth place.
Katrak pulled up the championship match between Quebec and New Jersey teams, which looked more like an organized sport. Katrak pointed out how the skilled New Jersey team kept up an aggressive full-court press, keeping the ball almost entirely on Quebec's side of the pool. The beleaguered Quebec team tried to do the standard defense strategy — literally having players sit or lay on the goal basket to block anything from getting in. It didn't work for long — New Jersey won, 2-0.
For most of its history, the San Francisco Giant Sea Bass has struggled to break into the top-tier, but Katrak and his colleagues hope to eventually nurture their own dream team. To that end, they're always on the lookout for new players, whether they're skilled swimmers or just someone looking for a fun pastime.
More information about the San Francisco Giant Sea Bass is on the team webpage at sfuwr.org.
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