Munmar Almara of the Philippines celebrates after scoring a goal during the match against Thailand in SEA Games water polo at New Clark City Aquatics Center in Capas, Tarlac on November 28, 2019.
Drive Sports and Fitness

This under-the-radar, underwater sport may just be the PH’s best chance at an Olympic gold

The Philippine team are well on their way of claiming the gold in SEAG, beating Thailand yesterday for their first win. These players aren't mere eye candy as some recent posts on social media would have you believe, but consistent podium finishers in international competitions. 
Bam V. Abellon | Nov 21 2019

In the 1980s, the University of the Philippines Divers Club brought underwater hockey to the country as a means to improve their diving skills. While the team would go scuba diving on weekends, the college students would have recreational hockey games on Tuesday nights at the Quezon City Sports Club.

The cardio-heavy sport soon got the attention of other athletes and fitness enthusiasts. And in 1995, the Philippine Underwater Hockey Club was born—now officially known as the Philippine Underwater Hockey Confederation. While they've been winning big at international competitions, they haven't been getting a lot of local recognition. This, they hope to change next year, when basic courses will be offered to build interest in this challenging sport.

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In the following years, the team began joining international tournaments in the United States. In 1998, they attended their first world championship, a tournament held globally every two years, with over 20 participating countries. They competed in New Zealand in 2004, in Hungary in 2013, and South Africa in 2015.

Now, the Philippines is hosting the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, and underwater hockey would be part of its roster of sports for the first time in the history of the regional multi-sport event.

ANCX visited the team during one of their training sessions at the Enrique M. Razon Sports Center of De La Salle University in Manila. On weekends, they train at the Vermosa Sports Club in Imus, Cavite, which will be the venue for the SEA Games.

The 12 members of the National Team aren’t full-time athletes; there’s a businessman, a doctor, a flight attendant, to name a few. Their sport is like their part-time job. They train three to four times a week, for three to four hours per training session including hours spent on strength training at the gym, skills work, and drills.

They’ve come a long way from the 1980s, and now they’re giving it their all for a shot at gold at the SEA Games.   

 

Deep dives

There are six players in a team, and four substitute players. In any game, there should only be a maximum of 10 players in a team. For the national team, the remaining two players are reserves: some will have to rest during the other games.

The aim of underwater hockey is to make as many goals as possible in the span of 30 minutes. “It’s a short game, but it’s very intense,” says Alex Colet, the captain of the men’s team.

To play, a player needs to have the following: a 12-inch hockey stick, a pair of gloves, a snorkel, a diving mask, a pair of fins, a water polo cap (also used for ear protection), and proper swimming attire. For international tournaments, the game is played in a pool with a minimum depth of 6 ½ feet, and a maximum of 13 feet. It should be about 15 meters wide and 25 meters long.

Vincent Sicat (6) grabs the ball against goalkeeper Chanokhan Kaewmanee (1) of Thailand during their match in SEA Games water polo at New Clark City Aquatics Center in Capas town, Tarlac on Thursday. The Philippines downed Thailand 7-4 to secure its first victory in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games.

Each goal, which lay on opposite ends, is marked by a three-meter long stainless steel.

The game starts with the three-pound, plastic-coated lead puck at the center. When the timer starts, the players—positioned by the wall, above the goal they are defending—swim toward the puck. Their aim is to maneuver the puck across the bottom of the pool, and into the opposing team’s goal.

In a game, a player may go up for air, watch the game from the surface while breathing through the snorkel. When he or she sees an opening, the player dives down back on the floor of the pool and make his or her move. There’s a lot of underwater sprinting, while holding their breath. To do this, the players sometimes do mediation. But as part of their training, they need to constantly swim about 25 meters without breathing.

“We have triathletes who come here, and they have a hard time coping up,” Colet says. “Because they’re used to breathing. But this one, you have to hold your breath.”

 

Playing together

Underwater hockey, which was invented in the United Kingdom in the 50s, is a semi-contact sport. For this reason, it can be co-ed game, at least recreationally. The Philippine teams, for example, often play mixed games for their training sessions.

One doesn’t have to be a swimmer to join the game, says Colet. “But if you’re a swimmer, it’s easier for you. We swim with fins. It’s easier to float and move. Before, we even had a player who couldn’t swim without fins. Of course in the beginning, everyone has difficulty holding his or her breath. Then you get used to it.”

Most players in the national team have played for more than a decade. Colet himself, a UP-Diliman alumnus, has been playing it for more than two decades. The national team has a selection process for its members, and newbies may try out.

The federation also holds introductory classes for those who may be interested in learning or training professionally. In January 2020, they will open their basic course, at the PhilSports Arena (Ultra), in Pasig.

It’s a sport for everyone, and there is no age limit (although there are different divisions). Colet says, “As long as you’re fit and healthy, and you can still swim, then you can play.”

The national team has gone this far, but they wish to accomplish more. And doing well in the SEA Games is simply a stepping stone for a bigger goal: the Olympics. For the upcoming tournament, the head of an international federation will observe the players and the dynamics of the game.

“This is probably the most legitimate competition before the Olympics because it’s a regional tournament,” Colet says. “It is recognized by the Olympics. It is very important in our desire to make it an Olympic sport.”

For now, they are betting on their achievements and hours and years of training to make an impact in the sport—and bring home the gold for the country. Being the first Asian country to play underwater hockey, the Philippines is actually one of the top bets to win the tournament. They’ve won the Asian Games in 2007, 2011, and 2013 against Singapore, their strongest rival.

On November, they hope to surpass expectations, says Colet: “This time, we have a stronger team. We have a strong chance of getting back the gold in Asia.”  

 

Photograph by George Calveo, ABS-CBN News