CINCINNATI (AP) – The blue team has a breakaway. An attacker with the puck races up the left side, closing in for an uncontested shot on goal.

Katie Rademacher can’t let this happen.

With long brown hair flowing from her white headgear, the high school junior pumps her legs and regains strategic position, forcing the attacker into the corner. Then, she swipes the puck with her chipped, white stick and passes it out.

The threat is over. Only one thing left to do: Come up for air.

With a few kicks of her black fins, Rademacher reaches the churning surface, blows a frothy spray from her yellow snorkel, takes a gulp of air and heads back down, looking for that orange puck in all of the commotion at the bottom of the pool.

There are no complaints about soft ice in underwater hockey, a version of the sport that includes goals and sticks but puts a premium on holding your breath.

“It’s really easy once you get the hang of it,” said Rademacher, 17, who plays on Roger Bacon High School’s club team.

The out-of-the-mainstream sport has a steady following across the United States and other dry parts of the globe, with 17 countries entered in next year’s world championships in Sheffield, England.

In the United States, organizers estimate that 48 teams play in 20 states. Most are club teams that scrounge pool time so they can practice for regional tournaments or the world championships held every two years.

“It keeps spreading,” said Carol Rose, president of the Underwater Society of America that oversees the sport. “It’s not speedy and it doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s growing and growing against the odds.”

The first challenge is making people aware of the sport. The second is to get them to stop chuckling.

“It’s hard to convince people that you’re serious,” said Paul Wittekind, a history teacher at Roger Bacon who also coaches the school’s club and the U.S. junior team. “A lot of people are going to sit there and say, You’re kidding!’ or, “What’s next, underwater basket weaving?”‘

Wittekind was introduced to the sport when he went for a swim one day while at Ohio State. Another graduate student invited him to play, and he quickly got hooked.

After Wittekind was hired at Roger Bacon in 1994, he set up the only high school underwater hockey club in the country, a coed team that attracts students with a broad range of interests. Some come from sports backgrounds. Others, like Rademacher, had never played sports. A friend signed her up for the team, she went to one practice and loved it.

“I tried this out, and it was amazing,” said Rademacher, who plays clarinet in the school band.

British divers are credited with inventing the game in the mid-1950s to keep in shape during the winter.

Teams consist of six players in the pool at one time – three forwards, three defensive backs. There is no goalie to protect the 10-foot-wide goal. A coated lead puck is passed and shot with foot-long wooden sticks held in gloved hands. Unlike hockey, physical contact is frowned upon. There are two 15-minute halves.

Players wear snorkels, fins, diving masks and protective water polo caps. Like hockey, it’s important to learn how to pass and control the puck. Unlike hockey, taking a breath figures into the game.

“When you run out of air, you know it,” said Anthony Hemingway, a junior on Roger Bacon’s team. “You get the gagging feeling. But when you’re close to the goal, you’re like, Do I want to score a goal or breathe?’ Most of the time I say, Score.”‘

The frenetic chase at the bottom of the pool and the quick bursts to the surface to get air leave the water roiling. From the surface, it looks like a feeding frenzy.

“At a championship game at the worlds, the water literally froths,” Rose said. “There is so much action with the fins, the pool is churning. It’s just absolutely phenomenal to watch.”

Because all the action is at the bottom of a pool, it’s not much of a spectator sport.

Also, there are financial obstacles that prevent the sport from growing faster. Pool time is limited and expensive, and equipment can cost more than $100.

The most attractive part for players is the camaraderie and the challenge of playing a game that’s unique.

“For me, it was just something completely different,” said Andy Kalb, a firefighter who plays on an adult team in Cincinnati. “It wasn’t like every other sport.”



On the Net:

CMAS Underwater Hockey Commission: http://www.auf.org.au/

2006 Underwater Hockey World Championships: http://www.uwhworlds2006.net/

Listing of U.S. underwater clubs: http://www.pucku.org/tourist/us.html


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