Have you ever seen a school of piranhas pounce on prey at the bottom of the water? Well, underwater hockey is the same! Except the catch is a puck. A 1.3 kg puck, much heavier than the one that melts on the ice of the rinks. Indeed, as the name of this sport implies, here we are underwater, about 2 m or 2.50 m deep. Inevitably it will be much slower, but it’s no less physical than on the skates. For those in doubt, the Pessac club, near Bordeaux, offers regular initiations and even lends all the equipment of a good underwater hockey player (mask, snorkel, mouthguard, helmet, glove, stick and palm).
“It’s a sport that originated in the south of England in the 1950s,” explains Lionel Dumeaux, the manager of the French teams. The divers got bored in the winter and so they started playing in the pools. For the record, they played with the oxygen bottle on their backs and wooden sticks. In France, this sport was introduced fifteen years later and the first French championship dates back to 1982. Today, underwater hockey has about one hundred clubs in France for 1,500 practitioners, of which 25 to 30% are young people under the age of 18. Solène Burel, player and president of the Pessac club:
People who get started with it often come from diving, synchronized swimming, water polo, spear fishing… Children can try this activity from 8 years old in the small pool. † †
A very special pool and no manager
“My family has been playing it for several generations,” Ludivine laughs next to her. This Thursday, the licensees of the Girondin club will meet at the Pessac nautical stadium for training. The competitions take place two or three times a year on a weekend. Solène and Ludivine are therefore expected in Puy-en-Velay (Haute-Loire) on March 12 and 13 for the second round of the elite women’s championship, which brings together the ten best French teams. This is one of the difficulties of underwater hockey: you don’t play when you want, where you want. You already need a precise infrastructure, ie a fairly large pool (the land is 12 meters by 15) and especially in tiles or stainless steel.
The second difficulty, the main one, “is finding slots to play,” Solène Burel recalls. In Pessac, everyone sets up the field in a few minutes. Some place the weighted lines on the bottom of the pool, while others lower the metal goals. Goals three meters wide, very special, because when we play 6 against 6 like on the ice, there is no goalkeeper in underwater hockey. You need to hit the ground hard enough towards this target so that it hits the bottom of the cage or falls into the latter’s small gutter (there are an average of four goals per game). Another big difference, there is no physical contact. The goal is to sneak between the opponents with his eight-inch stick, trying to keep the puck at the bottom of the pool.
Explode your cardio
So what are the qualities of a good player? The word to François: “Of course you have to be able to swim. But everything else can be learned. What I like is the mix between the fairly physical dimension and the fun we find in this sport. You also need to find means of communication, because of course you can’t talk to each other underwater. Solène Burel continues:
Above all, you have to be strong enough, because it’s cardio. The goal is not to stay under water for as long as possible, but to multiply apnea. Down, up, back on your feet, down… That’s why we do a lot of classic swimming and snorkeling. In fact, it is quite a complete sport. †
To breathe, each team can count on four substitutes. And honestly, it doesn’t look too much from the pool.
It must be said that every time the umpires stop playing (two in the water, one out), you have to start over at the level of your goal before sprinting to the center of the pool on the whistle and diving for the puck to recover. This exercise must be repeated several times during the two 12-minute periods, with the bonus of penalties ranging from one to five minutes that can be dropped at any time, often to punish a dangerous gesture. So, can it be violent underwater? “No, no, François reassures. It depends on the teams, but the higher the level, the fewer shots there are. “A bit like in all sports so…
The status of top athlete accessible since 1 January
If France is now one of the best countries in the world with New Zealand, England, South Africa or Turkey, then underwater hockey remains a niche sport for us. “I repeat, it is not a financial problem per se, but an infrastructure problem, emphasizes Lionel Dumeaux, also a member of the commission for this practice at the French Federation of Underwater Studies & Sport (FFESSM). In general, there is a real shortage of swimming pools in France and we mainly build playgrounds. This is not a criticism, but it does not help us”, In spite of everything, progress has been made because, since January 1, certain players have the opportunity to obtain the status of high-level sportsman, even if the practice remains 100% amateur today.
The clubs are also trying to get more visibility. They have been able to rely on the More Sport platform for quite some time, a young start-up that wants to put little-known sports in the spotlight. It sponsors the French teams and covers the biggest events. “It’s always better than nothing,” Solène concludes, before disappearing under the water again. We’ll have to run a few thousand more apneas to get sponsors and media attention to the bottom of the pool…