Underwater hockey: SURF'S UP, PASS THE PUCK

The woman at the theater wore an orange Nepalese hat. She spoke with a north Philadelphia brogue and mentioned in passing that she was captain of the US champion women's underwater hockey team.

On the West Coast one comes to expect the unusual. Some Californian always seems to be domino toppling, bathtub racing, or otherwise grandstanding his way into the Guinness Book of World Records. But underwater hockey? She must be pulling my leg.

The woman rifled through her purse and unearthed a bunch of 8-by-10 glossies showing two snorkelers shoveling a brass puck across a swimming pool with what looked like wooden spatulas. ''That's me in the black suit,'' she announced with certain pride. ''The guy I'm trying to out muscle is an ex-college football star.''

With missionary zeal, the lady in orange offered me the official British underwater hockey ''Octopush'' rule book, along with lists of hundreds of international underwater hockey teams from Liverpool to Tasmania, from Poland to Zimbabwe. There are even rumblings about including underwater hockey in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. ''And you thought I was crazy, huh?'' she huffed amiably.

''There's nothing quite like underwater hockey short of being up in spaceship Columbia,'' said Chambers, pulling into the passing lane. ''We're like weightless astronauts, that's what we are, bouncing off walls in slow motion, with no reference to up or down. On the bottom you watch people attacking from overhead, like Air Force pilots on a strafing run, like the Blue Angels doing their loop the loops, rolls, and spins. As an architect the three-dimensional aspect of the game blows me away. With all those pirouettes and sweeping arms, underwater hockey has all the visual pleasure of ballet.''

As it turns out, the San Francisco women's team (the FINtastics) and the men's team (the Treasure Island Divers) are the defending US underwater hockey champions. And at that very moment, she informed me, teams in Chicago, Seattle, Houston, Hartford, Conn., Minneapolis, and St. Louis were scheming to steal that title during the national invitational underwater hockey tournament May 15-16 at the University of Illinois's 17-foot-deep diving pool in Chicago. Her enthusiasm was contagious. I couldn't resist inviting myself to one of San Francisco's thrice-weekly workouts. ''Don't forget your flippers!'' she called after me.

Puzzling how such an outing might pass for investigative journalism, I stuffed a pair of blue flippers, a snorkel, a face mask, and my purple bathing trunks into my satchel and reported to the Berkeley address. It was a chilly spring evening and the woman in orange -- in purple that night -- was out front raking last October's leaves.

Karen Jacobs is one extraordinary underwater hockey player. She holds a PhD in education, speaks Spanish, Italian, and Turkish, worked as a professional belly dancer, and collects outlandish hats. ''Bet you've never laid eyes on a real Appalachian bean-picker's hat,'' she said. And she writes books about women in sports, including ''Girl Sports'' and ''The Story of a Young Gymnast -- Tracee Talavera.''

In the evening Ms. Jacobs joins the ranks of those couple dozen otherwise mild-mannered San Franciscans -- authors, computer programmers, truck mechanics, and art museum workers -- who get their kicks playing one of the most graceful, most sophisticated, most off-the-wall sports ever invented.

''We run the gamut from soup to nuts -- mostly nuts,'' said Guy Chambers, an architect who car-pools with Ms. Jacobs to Thursday evening practice.

Chambers began playing underwater hockey one evening about a year ago when the San Francisco team stormed into the Laney College swimming pool, where he swam laps nightly. His story has one of those if-you-can't-beat'-em-join-'em endings and, like any recent convert, his allegiance is larger than life.

''There's nothing quite like underwater hockey short of being up in spaceship Columbia,'' said Chambers, pulling into the passing lane. ''We're like weightless astronauts, that's what we are, bouncing off walls in slow motion, with no reference to up or down. On the bottom you watch people attacking from overhead, like Air Force pilots on a strafing run, like the Blue Angels doing their loop the loops, rolls, and spins. As an architect the three-dimensional aspect of the game blows me away. With all those pirouettes and sweeping arms, underwater hockey has all the visual pleasure of ballet.''

An hour blinked by on the digital clock in Guy's BMW and we were coming up the driveway of Ohlone College in Fremont. Steam rose on the 20-lane outdoor pool and swimmers were breathing contrails.

Bundled in an overcoat and wool scarf, I made my way for the locker room, where I met Eric Shackelford, a video cameraman and amateur folk dancer. He was on his way to underwater hockey practice and wore a yellow and black swimming suit, matching elbow pad, and a yellow bathing cap. He looked like he'd just stepped off a ''Killer Bees'' skit on ''Saturday Night Live.'' His elbow guard was fashioned from a cut-off knee sock, his flippers padded for added comfort with kitchen sponges (one yellow, one blue). On his right hand was a handball glove, its knuckles caked with white carpet glue.

Why the amphibious gladiator get-up? ''You can't go into a store and buy this stuff. We have to custom-make it. And you've got to protect yourself from getting hit by somebody else's stick and scraping the concrete bottom.'' The Ohlone pool is part concrete, part tile. The advantage of tile is fewer scrapes and faster play. Shackelford explained: ''Underwater hockey on concrete vs. tile is like football on grass vs. AstroTurf, tennis on clay vs. asphalt.''

Shackelford began to squirm. He had, after all, never granted an interview in full underwater hockey regalia. ''Practice is about to start, isn't it?'' he suggested, whirling for the door. ''Are you coming?''

Earlier, an older gentleman, blue with cold, had informed me in the locker room that the pool's heater -- which usually put out enough energy to warm 85 homes -- was broken tonight and couldn't belt out enough Btu to heat half a dozen doghouses. Nevertheless, I had run out of time as well as excuses and could avoid the pool no longer. I slithered into my bathing suit and tiptoed across the wintry pavement.

Underwater hockey, like submarine races, is not much of a spectator sport. The only way to view the game, short of underwater window panels (with which the University of Illinois pool is equipped) is donning fins and snorkel and mixing with the action. So, after a brief lesson in keeping my mask from filling with water, a feat I never quite mastered, this reporter jumped into the story, well over his head. For the next hour and a half I floated, flopped, and otherwise flailed near the surface, squinting through a fogged-over mask, trying to decipher the organized skirmish below.

The object of the game is to transport a brass puck (called a ''squid'' in Britain) along the pool bottom with a 10-inch wooden pusher, past your opponents and into a goal, or ''gully,'' which resembles a mammoth dustpan. The game is a lot like ice hockey, except you hold your breath longer. Right?


''The puck is pushed along a plane like hockey, there are sticks and goals, six players and two substitutes, but that's where the similarities fray out,'' said Joe Grandov, a diving instructor and scuba-equipment salesman. ''Actually it's more like basketball, which has something moving through a three-dimensional medium. Instead of a basketball moving up and down through the medium, in underwater hockey the players move up and down.''

That night, after 15 minutes of warm-up sprints across the pool bottom, the game began with two six-person co-ed teams, clutching opposite ends of the pool. The referee, an apprentice plumber, who normally centers the puck on the pool bottom and starts the game, forgot to show up that night, so someone shouted: ''Black sticks ready? White sticks ready? Go one!'' With that, each team sent its center, usually the fastest, strongest swimmer, racing for the bottom to face-off the puck. Seconds later two forwards from each team dive, anticipating the center's pass, to move toward the opponent's goal and then shuffle the puck to their halfbacks for a score.

The game's genesis is as murky as some of the pools it is played in. The British, however, lay claim to its invention. In October 1954, a British divers' newsletter called Neptune reported that Alan Blake, an Englishman, created the sport to pass long winter months when scuba diving wasn't much fun. By 1968 there were enough teams in the British Isles to hold a national championship. Ten years later the British Octopush Association was founded to coordinate more than 100 teams that were competing in the United Kingdom. In the meantime the sport was doing swimmingly throughout -Europe and in countries like Japan, Kenya , and Zambia.

The Commonwealth countries have always groomed powerhouse teams. Every year Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa are on the top of the heap. San Francisco's squads may clean up stateside, but during international competition they eat humble puck.

''On the international level we get trounced,'' said Holland Ja, team captain of the Treasure Island Divers. ''Any of -Canada's top five teams would beat us 12-3. And remember, at the second world invitational in Vancouver the Canadian team only placed fourth out of five teams. As you might have guessed, we were fifth.''

Ja, an office manager for Pacific Telephone, may well have played competitive underwater hockey longer than anyone in the United States. He learned in 1970 from his scuba diving instructor at the Treasure Island Naval Base, between San Francisco and Oakland. Then, the game was simply a teaching aid to develop snorkeling skills. By 1974 Ja had taken over the base's scuba program and was sending sailors back home hankering for underwater hockey.

Over the last few years Ja and the Treasure Island Divers have masterminded a secret weapon, which appears to be an underwater adaptation of football's safety blitz. He calls it the ''offensive goalie.'' ''Unlike most teams,'' said Ja, ''we don't leave one player behind to guard the goal. We pull the goalie up front as a pivot man, and let the halfbacks cover for him. It's a new strategy and that's why we keep winning the nationals. None of our opponents have yet figured out we're playing our six men against their five.''

The primary aim among underwater hockey players, Ja said, is to ''check'' your opponent, which translates into ''stopping his forward progress and burning up his bottom time. You either stay down longer than he does, or surface at the same time. Never let him outlast you,'' coaches Ja. ''Beginners tend to pass off , not at the right moment, but when they run out of air.''

Guy Chambers added: ''Recovery time is real important. Some people play hero hockey. They stay down forever but are so tired when they come up it takes a long time to recover. Someone with a good bottom time may have a poor recovery time. They might be a quick swimmer but can't handle the puck. The permutations are endless.''

Mind boggling as the variables may be, Ja has them down to clockwork. In order to separate the minnows from the sharks Ja has ranked every team player on a ''chart of 20 characteristics, such as bottom time, recovery time, strength, endurance, conditioning, playmaking ability, defensive capacity, length of puck shot, all that.''

Ms. Jacobs likens the complexity to bridge. ''You have to know where all the cards are and what's in your opponent's hand at any given time. Where are your players, who's on top, what are their bottom times, their speed, strength, turning ability, and puck-handling skills. It's a game of anticipation and split-second timing. There are moments when it is best to attack and times when it is best to hold back and burn (your opponents) out. You have to read the game situation instantly or you're lost.''

''You're either on the bottom or on the top,'' said Jennifer Linton, one of the FINtastics' strongest swimmers. ''There's no reason to hang around in the middle. You're just wasting your air and getting in the way. Only the ref hangs out there and he's got the toughest job, following the puck everywhere, and watching for fouls like using your free hand, picking up the puck, pushing, or blocking.''

A relatively young sport, underwater hockey has all the trappings of a pickup playground game. It will be some time before you can stroll into your corner sporting-goods store and walk out with a squid and gully. In the meantime an underwater hockey manual for grade-schoolers in British -Columbia suggests: ''Any adult can cut out bats easily with a jigsaw. Pucks can be made by adults melting lead and pouring it into a suitable sized jam tin.''

''The state of underwater hockey equipment is like football equipment in the '50s, when they didn't yet have face masks on the helmets,'' said Chambers. ''We're still fiddling around with better designs for gloves and masks. The standard diving mask we use is like running with blinders. We hope to get a mask molded out of a single piece of plastic to improve peripheral vision.''

Many of the San Francisco players are abalone divers and scuba instructors, capable of sitting motionless underwater for 2 minutes. During an actual game, however, the ideal bottom time is 20 seconds of flat-out scrimmaging, then surfacing for 20 seconds of recovery time before diving down again when teammates run short on air. Occasionally an undefended player will break for the goal, then sputter and surrender the puck, like a roadster running out of gas at the finish line.

On average, two or three players from each team play the bottom while the others rest on the surface, their snorkel tubes in the air and their masks glued on the game beneath them. They pant exhaustedly through their snorkels, and then plunge back into the fray.

The whole game is played in an eerie, almost absolute silence. Were a player to shout, ''I'm open! Pass me the puck!'' not only would he swallow gallons of chlorinated water, no one would hear a peep. Communicating is through sign language and a crude Morse code of tapping the wooden pusher on the pool bottom.

Water also neutralizes much of the strength differential between men and women. ''Strength is not such an advantage because the friction of the water slows everything down,'' Jennifer Linton said. ''You can't really get hurt. In underwater hockey, nobody gets left out. Because of the constant rotation, each person is needed. Some of the smaller people are good because they have better bottom times.''

Ms. Linton, who holds a degree in fine arts and teaches an advanced diving class in North Beach, now serves as Girl Friday for Project Tektite, a 12 -year-old NASA underwater habitat moved from the Virgin Islands to San Francisco's Fort Mason where it is now parked and undergoing renovation. She has played underwater hockey for nearly two years.

''Women play with more finesse and less muscle than the men,'' she added. ''Whenever we play with the men there are always some banged heads and knocked-off face masks. Some guys think they're playing underwater rugby.''

That night in Fremont the two teams played until nearly 9:30 p.m., then adjourned for lukewarm showers. The night was cold and the hour late. They had commuted up to two hours to and from work, and then had gotten back into their cars and driven another hour to find a pool deep enough to dive into and cheap enough to rent. Afterward they lingered in the Ohlone College parking lot as they do after every practice. No one wanted to go home.

These folks are not the kind you're likely to see jogging in $100 running shoes and matching tennis whites. They take a certain perverse pleasure in their oddball image. ''That's part of why we do it,'' said Ms. Jacobs. ''If you tell someone you jog, what can they ask? 'How far do you run? What kind of shoes do you wear?' If you play underwater hockey people look at you cross-eyed and say 'Underwater what?!' ''m

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