Breathing is not important right now. Only two things matter: the puck and my teammates.
Bubbles peacefully float up to the surface among a frenzy of fighting bodies and fins as my teammate flips toward the underwater metal goal. He's got it under control. Now I can breathe.
Though I've never played the water sport before, I find myself fighting for the puck and the need to breathe along with the other players.
It's Monday night in the pool at the University of Florida's underwater hockey team practice. Wait. Underwater what?
That's what the players of the little-known sport usually hear when they tell other people about what they love to do, said University of Florida junior and one-year player Rafael Seminario.
Masks and Mini Hockey Sticks
Underwater hockey is played like this: Each co-ed team has 10 players, but only six can be in the water at once. Players carry a foot-long miniature hockey stick used to hit the three-pound puck on the pool floor into a metal goal at each end.
The sport is believed to have developed in the 1950s in Great Britain, said Tom Redig, the development director of USA Underwater Hockey. The national organization has 50 registered teams, 10 of which are on college campuses. Though no collegiate division or official campus tournaments exist, the league hopes to grow the sport at the college level.
Someone standing on the side of the pool wouldn't understand the sport, said Jayne Raponi, a freshman player who started playing last fall. It takes a dive underwater to see what's really happening, so it isn't much of a spectator sport.
A mask allows the players to see underwater. The water fins increase mobility. Most importantly, the snorkel allows players to breath while still watching the action on the pool floor.
The snorkel often presents the most problems for new players.
Fighting to Stay Below Surface
"At first, it was a lot of swallowing water," said David Lopez, who joined the team in November. The fight to keep under water leaves little air to blow the water out of the snorkel after surfacing.
Attracting Surfers, Water Polo Players
But timing the breathing through the snorkel is a key to success for the team. Since not everyone can be under water and active all the time, players need to coordinate trips to the surface.
"Sometimes, you have to choose whether you're going to grab that puck or to breathe," said Cassie Meyer, a two-year veteran.
Most players estimated that it takes about one or two months for a new player to catch on to the sport. But most have participated in water sports in the past, from surfing to water polo.
The club's president, Andrew Kisz, is one of the few who didn't have any previous experience in competitive water sports. He just loved swimming.
When Kisz returned to school in 2007 after service in Iraq, he was looking for a sport to play. The underwater hockey club had set up a table outside the student union, and Kisz took interest even though he'd never heard the two words put together before.
Now, he's become the teacher. In such an unknown sport, the club has gotten a lot of practice in instructing people how to play, he said.
Being comfortable and willing to teach fosters a close and welcoming atmosphere in the pool, even though the sport itself can get heated.
Meyer said that underwater hockey brings out that competitive aggression in her. But she also said she doesn't always tell her mom when she's going to play because her mom gets concerned that her daughter will be hurt.
The word hockey might make her nervous, or maybe the fact that the sport is usually co-ed.
And like most underwater hockey college teams, more than half of the members on the UF team are men. Meyer said that generally boys play with a little more force while girls try to finesse their way into scoring points.
Everyone on the team agrees that the mixing of genders adds a special spirit. For some, it's more motivation.
"I like playing against the boys," Raponi said. "It's pretty competitive, like that 'bring it on' kind of mentality."
Raponi showed up to her first practice in the fall semester without knowing anybody on the team. She was motivated by a joke she heard at the university's orientation program that UF has every sport available—even underwater hockey.
'Get Possession, Score Goal'
"I had to play because (I thought) something that outrageous—there has to be something," she said.
Like Kisz, Raponi is one of the few who'd never played water sports before, but she has played several team sports on land. She compares the mentality to soccer—get possession, maintain possession, score goal.
She's noticed one major difference in land sports and the underwater sport. Silence.
"Because it's underwater you can't talk," Raponi said. "So it's learning to develop those bonds without words."
The closeness and welcoming nature of the team, she said, definitely contribute to finding these bonds. Planning a strategy at the start line is the other part.
The phrase booms over the water to the goal on the other side of the pool. Hanging with hands over the pool's edge, fins pressed up against the wall and sticks raised right above the surface of the water, we wait for the signal from the other side.
This time, Kisz takes the strike, which means taking the first dive for possession of the puck waiting in the middle of the pool. He heads toward the goal. The puck is stolen away. Passed when a team member needs to surface for air. Protected by bodies. Stolen again. Kisz takes it in for a score.
Playing a four-on-four scrimmage rather than a full six-on-six game, a goal comes much quicker. Kisz, having scored the goal, drops the puck back off in the center of the pool on the way back to the starting side.
Goal Line Chats
During practices, the goal line after a score becomes the meeting place for a short break to talk about what happened during the last goal and what could be done better next time. During a tournament, the players wouldn't get this opportunity.
In a tournament, by the time the players reach the starting goal, they usually have to dive back out for the next, said Greg Mullersman, a player who started in 2001 with the Gainesville club team and came to UF when the team started in 2004.
Mullersman, a computer programmer at Shands at UF, has been playing club sports at the university since he started as a student 25 years ago. The long-time water polo player got hooked on the intensity under water.
'Whatever It Takes to Win'
"You play your brains out for a minute or two and then sub out," Mullersman said. "You just totally exhaust yourself trying to do whatever it takes to win."
At Monday night's practice, Mullersman starts playing on my team as a back, whose job is to protect the goal. Even though I'm supposed to be playing forward, I spend much of my time surfacing on the water gasping for air and sounding like Darth Vader. Mullersman, however, who has a son about my age, follows the puck wherever it may go, surfacing just long enough for a full breath of air before ducking back into the action.
Raponi stayed back with Mullersman, a player with whom she has a good connection. They can alternate in coming up for air and passing the puck accordingly, which they discuss in between scores.
Kisz plunges forward with force at the start of every scoring drive. Sometimes he tries to get the puck to me for a few moments so I know what it's like to play the position. Only once during the two-hour practice do I manage to be in the right spot to receive the puck without needing to go up for air.
'Who Needs the Gym?'
As we return to the sideline, I joke about having wasted time going to the gym earlier that day.
"Yeah, who needs the gym?" Kisz says. He later mentioned that in his busy schedule, the three-times weekly practices serve as his stress relief.
After nearly two hours of swimming and scoring, practice is over and everyone climbs out of the heated pool into the cold night air at 11:15 p.m.
I can breathe again.