Playing hockey in a bathing suit could get really ugly, but if you’re at Roger Bacon High School in St. Bernard, Ohio, it’s a standard issue uniform. Founded in 1997 by Coach Paul Wittekind, the RBHS underwater hockey team is the only high school team of its kind in the country. And that’s probably because the sport is awesomely weird. Or weirdly awesome. Or both.
Don a bathing suit, snorkel, fins, a heavy-duty glove, and a water polo helmet, then grab a one-foot long underwater hockey stick and jump in. Six players at a time start at the edge of the pool then “face off” by swimming down and attempting to gain control of the puck, which is placed at the bottom of the middle of the pool before play starts. Players swim very close to the bottom of the pool and move the puck, passing to teammates as they swim across to score a goal. The snorkel allows players to rise to the surface of the water to take a breath while staying horizontal so as to keep track of the action happening several feet below the surface. Games consist of two 15-minute halves and a five minute halftime.
“People don’t believe it’s a sport,” Wittekind said. “They’ve not heard of it, and they’re a little bit dubious.”
But it most definitely is a sport. According to the World Underwater Federation’s website, underwater hockey originated in the United Kingdom in the 1950s as a winter activity for scuba divers to stay in shape, and since then has increased in popularity at universities and in community pools around the globe.
The RBHS underwater hockey team, which consists of about 20 student athletes per year, started their summer at the U.S.A. Underwater Hockey 2015 National Championships in Santa Clarita, California, where both the varsity and junior varsity teams competed against collegiate and adult club teams from across the country. One of the RBHS team’s competitors at the National Championships was the U.S. U-19 team, which will compete at the Underwater Hockey World Championships in Spain later this year.
At this year’s national championships, competition was divided up over a few days. All teams started out in a “pod” of about four teams and played against the other teams in the pod to determine which division (A, B, or C) each team will be in for the tournament. Once assigned a division, which consists of 7-8 teams, a new round of games were played to determine the winners. The RBHS varsity and junior varsity teams both competed in Division C, receiving third and sixth place, respectively.
Keir Adams, an incoming senior at RBHS, has been on the team for about three years. He has participated in numerous competitions and tournaments in the U.S. and Canada, with this being his third trip to the U.S.A. Underwater Hockey National Championships.
“This trip was one of a kind,” Adams said in an email. “As always, the level of play was intense; we were no longer playing against each other in practice. The Phoenix team, who I am sure had some part-time lumberjacks on their team, offered tough competition. Other difficult teams included George Mason, which had speedy swimmers, and the U-19 team, which, although our age, practices every day and drills a manual of underwater hockey in preparation for the world’s tournament this August.”
As the the only high school team in the nation, there is a lot of turnover, which means recruiting season never ends.
“You have to get the athletes who are willing to make the commitment, so when they do go to the competition they’re ready to put their best foot forward,” says Mason.
And that’s exactly what these student athletes do. Whether they’re competing against the Cincinnati club team (which includes several RBHS alumni) or against teams from across the country, the RBHS underwater hockey team is always working to improve their game and outperform the competition.
“As a team, we excel most at beating teams better than us by playing as a team,” said RBHS junior Ben Leo.
From running drills to hanging out after practice, the bond created between players seems to be one of the most valuable assets this young team has.
“Underwater hockey has allowed me to grow as a person,” said RBHS senior Molly McDaniel. “But really, I would not be who I am today without the support of my teammates. The team excels in supporting one another. We are really like a big family.”