The round robin is finally over. Nine games over six days for six wins, two draws and a loss means that we finished third in our side of the draw. A quarterfinal appointment with Colombia is locked in.
It has been fun thus far. We have had some tough games and a couple of easier assignments. One of the most enjoyable parts of coming away to a competition like the World Championships is testing yourself against the different styles played by other countries.
The general standard of hockey is quite high back in Australia but our geographical isolation mean international competitions are few and far between. We play a trans Tasman series against New Zealand every other year. They are fiercely contested affairs but coming up against the same faces year after year does wear a little thin.
Each time I come away to World Championships I am amazed at how much time the puck spends on the wall. The other countries seem to love that shit. I’ve never been averse to a bit of biffo on the wall but keeping it there for the entire game saps the interest out of the contest. It stifles imagination and creativity and turns the game into a bargefest.
The other obvious difference is the amount of time the puck spends on the back of player’s sticks. Some of the guys from other countries have mad skills: they use smaller sticks and attempt all these amazingly complicated and elaborate moves. They use the reverse flick far more often.
That type of play is very effective but I only know the Australian way. I try to get tight to the bottom and hit the puck hard. I’ve got a push-pull, a swerve, a flick and a curl. Most of my teammates have a similar toolkit. What I like about our style of play is that there’s no bullshit. It’s basic and it’s effective.
Finals start tomorrow and there is no better way to test our style of play against the best in the world.
Whether it is a recommendation from a friend, seeing a poster down at the pool or joining a club at University, all underwater hockey players remember how they found their way to the game.
My pimply-faced journey began in Wonthaggi. I was splashing around at the local pool when an old hairy dude rocked over and suggested that we give underwater hockey a go. Give it a try I did. I was hooked from the start.
We played on a Thursday night and I remember counting the days until the next session so that I could get amongst it again. I was telling anyone and everyone about this underwater pursuit that I had stumbled across. All my school friends where dragged along to the pool at one point or another.
The Wonthaggi pool is shallow, 0.8m to 1.5m, with fast, small tiles. It was a good place to learn the game. A pool like that gives you quick hands and teaches you the benefits of fast lateral movement. It is a small rural town but the club has produced dozens of national and international players. Some douche bag resurfaced the pool a couple of years back using those safety tiles that grip like a bastard and it completely changed the style of game. Club nights have turned into a flick and chase bash-fest.
I never thought it would happen at the World Championship level but playing in the outdoor pool here at Eger took me back to my time in Wonthaggi. The visibility is terrible and the bottom is like sandpaper. Jase reckons he has seen rivers with less algae. Apparently some bright spark decided clean it using a chemical toxic enough to strip the glaze from the tiles. On the upside, channeling my inner Wonthaggi has worked quite well when adapting my game to the slugfest.
The Australian Elite teams arrived in Eger nearly a week ago. The first New Zealand contingent arrived a day or two after. Many of the other teams didn’t turn up until yesterday. It’s interesting that two of the nations who have to travel the furthest, arrived the earliest.
Getting here early has had its advantages. We have had a chance to acclimatize and get over our jetlag. Some of the boys have even begun to decode the Hungarian passion for pork-based cuisine.
The team was selected back in January then we have spent the last seven days training, practicing and talking. This extra time adds to the excitement but also presents some challenges. You have so much time to think. Anticipation builds and builds so that by the time the competition actually comes around you are a bundle of nervous energy. The trick is not letting those nerves affect your game.
It’s a trick that I’m yet to master but our first game was a solid hit out against New Zealand. We drew the game 3-3 but the result is almost secondary to finally getting the games underway.
Eight months worth of swimming and training is behind us now. We will be better for our first run. Now we can get down to business. Let the games begin.
Most of the Australian teams have been holed up in Eger for five days now. As it has turned out we have had a fair bit of time between sessions.
Some people have spent that time working through one TV series or another, others have amused themselves with witty anecdotes about memories past, a select few might have even spent their spare time usefully.
I decided to turn my hand to compiling an Underwater Hockey themed mixed tape.
Team uniforms, Australian underwater hockey players are passionate about them. Everyone’s got an opinion and you can never keep everyone happy. Getting the uniform right can improve the awesomeness of any team. A decade of Australian dominance was built on over-sized florescent green and gold parachute tracksuits.
Still, a large group of people deciding to wear exactly the same thing at the same time is a little strange. You often see big groups from one sport or another, rocking out together in matching crop tops and short shorts. Sometimes they look good, most of the time they don’t. Irrespective, they always stand out.
This is especially true in our sport. A bright yellow t-shirt with UNDERWATER HOCKEY plastered across the chest is pretty hard to miss. Wearing an official looking uniform does have some upsides. For example, it adds credibility when trying to get an upgrade while flying. It might even trick someone into thinking that wearing budgie smugglers and flailing about on the bottom of the pool is a legitimate way to spent three weeks. Despite all of these upsides, something about wearing my team uniform on the plane over here just didn’t feel right. Wear your uniform while traveling by yourself and there is a fair chance that you’re going to look like a genuine squeezer. The “look at me” factor is just too great. Basic hygiene is another consideration. A competition like the World Championships is a long haul and your uniform is your home for most of that time. Wear the same clothes for two weeks and you’re bound to cultivate a decent stink no matter what you do. Soiling your uniform for an extra 40 hours on the plane on the way over isn’t going to help.
This year’s Australian team uniform seems to be going ok. Self appointed style guru Stewart ‘Parko’ Parkinson has been shooshing about with Catalina Chica Perez, Sandra Milner and Kirsteen “Chooky” Reid. They have managed to overcome Stewart’s passion for double denim to deliver a creative masterpiece that combines polyester, South American exotica with retro chic. Hopefully, it is a uniform to inspire another generation of Australian players to do great things.
“Yes, underwater hockey.”
“Really, never heard of it. How does that work?”
This conversation, and its many variations, is replayed over and over across the world. Every underwater hockey player approaches this situation differently.
My response has changed over the years. Early on, I would talk up the sport to anybody and everybody. Naive enthusiasm like that can only last so long. Cynicism and fatigue eventually crept in and I either ignored the question or directed people to look it up on YouTube. That kind of response doesn’t really promote the sport so I’ve been searching for a happy medium.
After a recent conversation I finally think I’ve found it. My reply went something along the lines of, “Get a bunch of weirdos together and throw them into a pool.” I wasn’t being derogatory. I’ve always considered myself a first class weirdo and the marginal nature of our sport has some big upsides. Underwater hockey isn’t really that much different to other recreational activities. It is no weirder than a bunch of blokes chasing a bit of leather around a field or people picking heavy stuff up then putting it back down. Less people play underwater hockey that’s all. One of the things I like about our sport is that it draws people from different backgrounds. I have traveled the world playing underwater hockey and have met all kinds of new and strange people. I wouldn’t have had these are experiences if I didn’t play underwater hockey.
The good times are set to continue over the next couple of weeks. The international weirdo convention that is the 2013 Underwater Hockey World Championships is about to kick off. Hundreds of like-minded people from around the world will converge on the little Hungarian town of Eger to scuffle about on the bottom of a pool. I’ll be there. I’ll be going around with the Australian boys having a whole heap of fun in the process. It will be a chance to meet a whole new bunch of weirdos – people who found their way to underwater hockey just like I did. I’ll be writing some frivolous notes about my adventures.