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Deep Six

Santa Rosa Sharks
Janet Orsi

Getting Along Swimmingly: A member of the Santa Rosa Sharks underwater hockey team moves in for a goal.

Aqua hockey is a watery workout for all ages

By Dylan Bennett

TWELVE FEET beneath the water's surface, six members of the 10-man Santa Rosa Sharks team, blunt weapons in hand, swim in a hurried swirl of antagonism. With its flurry of fins and goggles, the seascape of scissoring legs resembles the obligatory underwater knife-fight scene in a James Bond movie.

Welcome to the bizarre world of underwater hockey, a sport so odd you'd think it's a bad joke--until you try it.

Reality kicks in when you merely swim to the bottom of Santa Rosa's Ridgeway swimming pool. The acute pressure on human eardrums at 12 feet is the first opponent, but you get used to it. The objective--to push a two-pound lead puck with a short wooden stick into a long, flat metal goal--requires all of the physical strength and mental daring a beginner can muster. It's daunting but rewarding.

Indeed, underwater hockey is the best reason to swim to the bottom of deep water since childhood mud fights in a murky country pond meant frequent crash dives for more ammunition.

Thankfully, adrenaline eases the pressure on your ears. For a few fleeting moments during 90 minutes of aqua hockey, I sweep up the puck and kick down the sideline without opposition. Where is everybody?, my oxygen-deficient brain wonders. They must be getting air. I thrust for the goal. Visions of beginner's luck splash across my face mask. Just six more feet. It won't be long now. Down from the sky plunge the defenders. I pull a cheap move to the right. No such luck. I lose control of the puck and my lungs redline.

There's nowhere to go but up.

"I like the rush I get at 12 feet," says local enthusiast Brian Tucker, 28, a physical education teacher who can scrimmage at the pool bottom for a full minute or more before coming up for air. Tucker has traveled around the nation to play aqua hockey and even hosts a Web page devoted to this esoteric sport.

Underwater hockey players spawn mostly from the local ocean free-diving scene, says Tucker, who is one of maybe 25 underwater hockey players in Sonoma County, a group that also includes many competitive swimmers, divers, and water polo enthusiasts.

"Most do it to stay in shape," says Cotati butcher Scott Becklund of the growing interest in underwater hockey. There are only a few hundred enthusiasts nationwide.

The Sharks--or Rasta Sharks, as they are sometimes known--are part of the Pacific Coast Champions aqua-hockey league, which includes teams from Seattle, Vancouver, Fresno, and San Francisco. The teams compete for a chance to play in the annual nationals. The United States also fields a national team in the world aqua-hockey championships.

Although the game calls for terrific stamina, skill, and guts--and visually stimulating uniforms that include bathing caps, ear protectors, masks, snorkels, duck fins, gloves, and rough-hewn push sticks--underwater hockey's popularity is limited by one main factor: until someone builds a glass-walled swimming pool, this will never be a spectator sport.

Too bad, too. Underwater hockey is remarkably inclusive of gender, age, and physique. At a recent game, 68-year-old Charlie Anderson skillfully dueled his own 15-year-old son at the goal under three meters of water. And a chunky guy at least 50 pounds overweight lithely kicked for repeated breakaway scores. Women also play, and mixed teams are common.

While most of the local enthusiasts are men, women and co-ed teams also compete and the league sponsors summer children's clinics.

Water is the great equalizer that counteracts weight and size in the righteous fight for control of the watery depths.

The Santa Rosa Sharks' underwater hockey games are open to the public each Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Ridgeway Pool, Ridgeway High School, 325 Ridgeway Ave., Santa Rosa. For more information, call Brian Tucker at 585-8235.

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From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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