Felt good the first time, maybe better the second time round

Athletes are motivated by all kinds of things but from my perspective, sport, particularly at the elite level, is the pursuit of satisfaction. Athletes compete to test their expectations of self. Pain, sacrifice and disappointment are often central to the journey but satisfaction comes from pushing your physical and mental boundaries and testing yourself against the best in the world. A privileged few emerge from that test having unequivocally met the expectations they set for themselves. Those rare moments when the stars align and you find yourself at the pinnacle of your chosen pursuit provide a fleeting but deeply fulfilling glimpse of soul savouring satisfaction.

The first time I experienced that feeling was in 2002 in the bar of the Calgary swimming pool. Not the first place that comes to mind when thinking of places for life-defining moments but I was a member of the Australian Underwater Hockey team that had won the CMAS World Underwater Hockey Championships just an hour before. We went through the competition undefeated and beat New Zealand 5-4 in the gold medal game of the Men’s division. Relief, joy and plenty of man-hugging is what I remember of the post-game celebrations but it was an hour or so later that the enormity of what we had achieved really hit home. I was sitting in the bar sharing a beer with my teammates when every grain of my being was flooded with an overwhelming feeling of utter satisfaction. While Underwater Hockey is a little known amateur sport[1] it has a well-established international competition[2] and after three weeks of elite level games and six months of training, I was exhausted. It was the first world championship that I had competed in, we had gone through the competition undefeated and I had played every game. It was a win that continued Australia’s domination of the sport. At that point in time Australia had won 9 of the 13 world championships held in the Men’s division. Sitting in that bar, sharing a beer with Bushy and Lordy, I experienced the deep contentment that came with having met the expectations that I had set for myself. Me and twelve other Australian boys[3] had travelled to Canada, tested ourselves against the best in the world, and had come out on top.

Sitting in that poolside bar all those years ago I had no idea that I would have to wait so long for a chance to experience that feeling again. I wouldn’t say I thought what we had achieved was easy but I was young and cocky enough to have expected to win. Only in hindsight have I come to appreciate how precious and fleeting moments like that are.

Fast-forward nine years and I toss restlessly in bed. We are in a shmick hotel in the centre of Coimbra, Portugal, it’s still dark outside but I am wide-awake. Australia has contested three world championships since our Calgary win and it has been lean times for the men. I didn’t go to the 2004 Worlds in New Zealand as I was still paying off a credit card debt from the 2002 trip.[4] The boys went close but lost to New Zealand in the final. I was Vice Captain for the 2006 Worlds in Sheffield, England. We had a great bunch of guys but it was probably the least prepared Men’s team Australia has sent. We finished fourth and I became the worst performed VC in Australian Men’s team history. In hindsight, fourth was a solid effort but it didn’t feel like that at the time. I didn’t have a good competition; didn’t get myself anywhere near fit enough as I was working three jobs in the lead up to be able to go. After that competition I promised myself that I wouldn’t go to another elite level international competition unless I could commit to doing the training. As such, I didn’t try out for the Durban Worlds team in 2008. The boys finished forth again but it was an underachieving forth having lost a heartbreaker in the semi-final to France.

Silver followed by back-to-back finishes out of the medals meant whatever aura the Australian Men’s team had is gone but today me and twelve other boys have put ourselves in a position to change that. Today is the last day of the 2011 World Championships and in about ten hours, I will represent Australia in the gold medal game against South Africa. Today, we have a chance to put a decade of frustration behind us and reclaim our spot at the top of the Underwater Hockey heap.

I’m normally a heavy sleeper but balancing nerves and expectation is the thing I find hardest about competing at this level. I glance through pre-dawn dim at the bed next to me. Going by the deep Wookiee-like breathing coming from that direction, Blake is fast asleep. By the sounds of it, Robbie, is also asleep on his mattress on the floor.[5] I’m wide awake but decide it’s too early to get up so I lay in the dark concentrating on my breathing.

It isn’t the first time for nerves this competition. They came early in the tournament, second game maybe, in the lead up to our game against Colombia. It was our first big test and you could taste the tension in the lead up, even from the guys who had played in six or seven World Championships. The Colombian have some really solid players and played strong game but we got the job done and came away with a 4-2 win.

The nerves hadn’t really come again until finals. We finished the five-day round robin in second place and faced the 7th placed Brits in the quarterfinals. Having played a one-all draw with them in the round robin we knew it was going to be a tough slog. The nerves came in the lead up but it wasn’t caused by the quality the opposition but a fear of underachievement. If we lost, fifth was the highest we could finish. No point making the trip for a result like that. We won, maybe 3-1.

It’s funny how the mind works. We faced the French in the semi final the following day and although it was a bigger occasion than the quarterfinal and they had beaten us earlier in the competition the nerves hadn’t come. Although history suggested otherwise, I knew we had their measure. We controlled a tough and physical game to win 3-2.

Watching the dawn light creep into the room I know that today’s game is different. It is the conclusion of six months of training and sacrifice. Not just the money spent to get here but the time that could have been spent with family and friends. Six months of 25-hour weeks spent in swimming induced boredom with nothing for company but the monotony of the black tiled line. Six months of early rises to swim in the damp, miserable Melbourne chill.

The preparation for today’s game is also different. We only have one game and it isn’t until late in the afternoon. We attempt to keep changes to the routine that has served us so well to a minimum. Attention to detail in our preparation and recovery has played a big part in securing a spot in the final. We didn’t exactly set the world on fire in the early stages of the tournament – a loss to France and draws with Great Britain and South Africa was proof of that – but the improvement had come as the competition progressed.

It’s 6:45am and I’ve been awake for hours but feel sluggish stumbling downstairs to the breakfast buffet. The majority of the team arrive on time but the usual stragglers wander in a little late. I stack my plate with miscellaneous food and eat in silence while the trash talk begins. It’s early and I have to ease my way into the rubbish talk. After 45 minutes or so most of the other guys wander back up to their rooms but we have hours to kill so I stay and drink coffee with Parko. A student of the game and a talker, Parko has the ability to talk a game to death. He dissects the dynamics and possibilities of a play from three days earlier that I only have the briefest recollection of but it is good to talk to him, it hones my focus.

A couple of hours have pass before we are moved on by the wait staff. It is time for our team meeting and I walk upstairs. Our coach Arnie holds court and runs through the team things we need to focus on. Then it goes to the circle and each person has an opportunity to say their piece, outline their focus. I glance at the faces in the circle. Prior to the competition people had asked me how I thought we would go. I answered as honestly as I could. I had no idea. This years team has a good mix of experience and enthusiasm. Jase, Elwood and Gav are the veterans. Those boys have been sniffing around so long they remember brass pucks, the introduction of hooked bats and the move from bare knuckles to gloves. But they are all guns. The next bracket of players are a couple of years either side of thirty – Parko, Blake, Nick, Yongy and myself – solid underwater hockey citizens with plenty of international experience. Then there is Robbie, Stinno, Tommy and Tim, top-level players but making their mark at this level for the first time. Before the competition I had looked the same faces and believed we could win but knew if we didn’t gel as a team it could be really disappointing. Looking at the boys I’m happy with how it has turned out. In a couple of hours we will play off for a World Championship.

The end of the meeting is followed by the nothing time. We still have hours to wait but can’t do anything that might expend energy. What’s worse, you can’t use sleep as an escape as it throws the body clock out of whack. Some of the other boys put on a movie but I am too amped to sit and end up wandering the hallway aimlessly. I find myself in lobby then head back upstairs. Online updates from the other finals being played at the pool are coming through but I don’t pay much attention. I try to keep my focus sharp. I need concentrate on the basics, the things I need to do. The things I can control.

Time drags but before I know it we have to go. We gather in the hotel lobby an hour and a quarter before the scheduled game time. While the preparation is as similar as it can be, there is a different feel today, a sharper focus. There is no laughing, joking or mucking around, everybody is too busy thinking about the game ahead. I climb into one of the vans, put my headphones and we head for the pool.

Butterflies do neat backflips in the pit of my guts when the pool comes into view. We park, dump our bags and get into some stretching on the concrete outside the pool complex. There is blur of movement and exercise then our captain, Blake, is leading us on to the pool deck. The South African guys are already there loitering with relaxed ease. Nods and handshakes are exchanged as we pass. They are good men but with a world championship on the line the pleasantries feel a little forced. We have our usual 15 minutes of ‘me time’. Enough time to find a lost glove, tape something up, take a shit or generally just waste time. My kit is ready so I sit, think and breathe.

Fifteen minutes later we stand on pools edge ready for the warm up. For the first time all competition I don’t notice the chill of the water as I dive in. Some swimming and breath-hold drills follow before we move into the court for some puck drills.

A yell signals time and we climb onto the side of the pool and link arms. Advance Australia Fair is followed by the South African national anthem. I try to focus on my breathing but my heart is pounding. I just need the game to start.

Arnie and Blake deliver a last-minute pep talk and a couple of other guys say a few words. I say something. With only sixty seconds until the game starts the nervous energy is at its most intense. Dozens of thoughts race through my brain. Why am I here? I am never doing this again. Calm down. Breathe. Just have fun. Remember why you play. You like the physicality. Not just the one-on-one tests of strength and skill but the way it pushes your physical and mental boundaries. You like the unpredictable nature of it – players will come at you from the front, the side, behind, above and sometimes even below. Just rely on your instincts; just put the puck where a teammate should be.

Finally the buzzer sounds, the game starts and the thinking stops. At the elite level, the game is fast and physical. Elbows and heels fly in the rolling feeding frenzy on the bottom of the pool. The World Championship decider is just that. The South African boys play a nice game, tough and physical but they also look to open the play up. But the open game is the Australian way. We can contain and defend but look to open it and swim to space when the opportunity presents. Even though the play is in our defensive half for extended periods we control the game. We absorb their pressure then break forward and into space.

Our best game is our last. We win the world championship game six goals to one. It’s the biggest margin in a Men’s final in twenty odd years. The post game celebrates are just like they were ten years earlier but this time I take a couple of extra moments to savour them. I close my eyes and savour the relief and the joy. I shake hands and hug my mates. We have achieved something significant together and I am fortunate enough to have reached the pinnacle of my sport for a second time. I have waited nearly a decade for the satisfaction that now floods though every fibre of my being. The wait has only made it all the more rewarding.

[1] Underwater Hockey is a sport not many people have heard of. When it comes up in conversation you always end up explaining the basics: players wear mask and snorkel, fins and use a short wood or plastic bat. Players hold their breath and push or flick a lead puck along the bottom of the pool in an attempt to get it into the opposition goal tray.

[2] Underwater hockey has a strong following throughout Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. World Championships are usually held every two years. The 2006 World Championships held at Sheffield, England attracted 44 teams from 17countries competing across four divisions.

[3] Mick Bailley, Greg Bush, Jason Lord, Nick Marytn, Jason Miezis, Karl Paton, Hamish Ride, David Sutcliffe, John Sutcliffe, Gavan Wise, Nick Yong and our coach David Lambert.

[4] As an amateur sport, Australian Underwater Hockey players have to pay their own way.

[5] Robbie was sharing a room with Yongy but had dragged his mattress into our room to escape the snoring.

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