Water athletes face tough competition and intense training, finds Dawn Picken

LOCAL athletes are winning international titles in sports that can be tough to see and appreciate. Those who take part in underwater hockey and synchronised swimming sink thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours into their passion while submerging their bodies in pools.

Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken found that subaquatic athletes are similar to professional rugby and netball players, minus the money and fame.

It's Tuesday afternoon when we watch members of the Tauranga Underwater Hockey team swimming warm-up laps at Bay of Plenty Polytechnic's outdoor pool. Ten girls plough the warm water wearing togs, masks and snorkels. Snorkel tubes with white stripes indicate representatives of the New Zealand national team. Three Tauranga girls are national reps.


Two, Georgia Coughlan and Kirsty Burrows, attend Tauranga Girls' College. A third, Jordan Ross, made the NZ under-19 team as a reserve. Megan Burrows and Ben Richards also went to the World Age Group Championships in Spain in August, where the U19 Kiwi women took silver and the U19 men won gold. The Kiwi U23 women took fifth place and the U23 men won bronze.

Tauranga Girls' junior coach Lance Potaka says Kiwis have a fierce international reputation in underwater hockey. "We're the country to beat. We'd have to be the top country in the world. Everyone goes to the Worlds wanting to beat New Zealand."

Coughlan says she joined underwater hockey five years ago after watching her sister play. "I always came to training and it looked really fun. I thought it was cool and that I'd give it a try." Team-mate Burrows says her older sister and brother were her influence, too. "I did mini league in intermediate and a lot of swimming when I was younger. It helps to be able to hold your breath a long time."

Potaka says underwater hockey players develop tremendous lung capacity. "When they start, they're just down there kicking until they run out of breath. Our senior girls do a static breath hold two minutes, just warming up. I talked to a guy who used to hold his breath four minutes."

Underwater hockey is played on the bottom of the pool with a plastic puck (weighing around 1.4kg) and a short stick. According to the World Underwater Federation website, the British Navy invented underwater hockey in the 1950s to keep divers fit and improve their ability to work underwater.

The sport is played in a 25m pool between two and four metres deep. The game consists of 15-minute halves with six players in the pool at a time, per team. Players wear large fins, diving mask and snorkel and a thick latex glove.

When the referee sounds the buzzer, both teams race for possession of the puck. Players must shoot the puck through a goal tray at the back wall to score.

Potaka laughs while telling me underwater hockey is classified as non-contact. "Some people get stitches. It can be pretty rough. Like any sport, you can get hurt. Generally, they get through games without injuries."

Coughlan says she was recently elbowed in the forehead and bruises often. A player from Great Britain fouled her during the World Championships. "I made eye contact with the girl under water. She looked at me and pulled off my mask."

Burrows adds, "I got smacked on my lip with a hockey stick."

But most people will never see the rough and tumble, or any other part of the game. "It's not a spectator sport," says Burrows. "No-one can watch."

Players wear snorkels to avoid bringing their heads above water to breathe. "People think we have lead boots or long hockey sticks (they have neither). It's hard at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's second nature."

Athletes training for international competitions pull long hours. Coughlan says she trained twice each day for up to an hour-and-a-half a time prior to the World Champs.

She says the effort paid off. "It was amazing - completely different from any other sports tournament. Quite a few countries stayed in the same hotel and we made new friends."

Commitment for parents of athletes in these niche, mostly self-funded sports, is substantial. A good mask and fins can cost hundreds of dollars (Tauranga's club loans equipment to beginners for free).

Travel costs spiral. Rotorua underwater hockey player Coral Dolman says parents of top players spend $6-8000 every two years for international competitions.

"Trying to keep them in as adults is the hard part. Once they leave home, mum and dad stop paying for tournaments."

Tauranga parent Deirdre Burrows, whose daughters Kirsty and Megan travelled to Spain, fundraised to send her girls abroad. "Worlds for both our girls cost over $8000 each."

Megan has represented New Zealand four times Kirsty twice. "They love the sport and I hope that they can continue to play for many years to come," Mrs Burrows says.

Synchronised swimming is another niche sport requiring time, treasure and talent from athletes and families. Four Tauranga athletes: Sarsha Younger, Eva Morris, Jazzlee Thomas and Amy Lowans, along with coaches Julieta Diaz and Suzanne Ribeiro travelled to Spain, Switzerland and Russia this winter to compete in the Spanish Open, Swiss Open and Fina World Aquatic Champs. They narrowly missed qualifying for the 2016 Olympics.

Tauranga Synchronised Swimming chair Shirley Hooper says winning a spot at the Olympics from among the 45 countries present at the World Champs would have been a fairytale. "For the first time, to finish 17th, we're pretty happy with that. Unfortunately, we got beaten. It was a big goal to qualify for the Olympics. You must be the top Oceania nation and Australia finished 16th. They've been training a lot longer."

Members of the national team - the Aquaferns - train 35-40 hours a week, split between pool and gym.

Synchro is a demanding sport likened to underwater rugby. The team reports three black eyes and a concussion in the past six months.

Synchronised swimming combines swimming, dance and gymnastics. Competitors hold their breath underwater while doing turns, lifts and leaps as part of a choreographed routine set to music. Nose clips help swimmers stay upside down in the pool. While athletes can hear music through underwater speakers, they synchronise by counts. Synchro swimmers can hold their breath on average three minutes.

Hooper describes the sport as "running a marathon while holding your breath upside down in water. You need endurance and lung capacity, because you're upside down doing incredible moves." Athletes also need strength. They're judged partly on how high they can get out of the water. Hooper says an endurance test of Olympic athletes showed synchro swimmers second only to marathon runners. Hooper says it's not water ballet. "It's an incredibly tough sport. They're on a quest for perfection. As opposed to netball and underwater hockey, they might win, but they're always pushing themselves to get a little more perfect."

"It's like running a marathon while holding your breath upside down in water. You need endurance and lung capacity, because you're upside down doing incredible moves."


They're also jostling for dollars. Like underwater hockey, synchro is self-funded. Hooper says a six-month competition campaign which includes hiring pool space, employing strength and conditioning trainers, nutritionists, plus funding airfare and overseas travel comes in under $20,000, with some contributions from the national and international synchro organisations, plus corporate sponsorship. "They fund as best they can, but the big commitment comes from parents, as it does for any niche sport."

Sarsha Younger is the senior Tauranga swimmer in the Aquaferns and a team captain. Younger says she's "very lucky to have been supported by my family". The 23-year-old has been involved in synchro 10 years, after taking gymnastics and ballet. "You have to be 100 per cent dedicated. I train a lot and don't have time for much else."

When I ask what she does when she's not doing synchro, Younger laughs and replies, "I'm never not doing synchro. This year, it was just sleeping and recovering. We were training 40 hours a week."

Younger says she'll pause next year to study nursing at the Polytechnic, but is focusing on nationals this month in Dunedin. "It's actually a very athletic sport. You have to be incredibly fit and it's nowhere near as easy as it looks."

A Seven Sharp story in June showed the Aquaferns' grace above water: smiling lips, flashing legs, pointed toes. Stamina and grit lie below the surface as swimmers form pyramids underwater with layers of girls launching the 'flyer' from the water for somersaults. Hooper calls it a "feat of engineering".

Jokes about nose clips and soggy gymnastics aside, synchro is serious. And while the Aquaferns missed a chance for the Rio Olympics next year, they say the next World Champs in 2019, aren't far off.

TIMING IS KEY: Some swimmers train for up to 40 hours a week. Photo/Andrew Warner
TIMING IS KEY: Some swimmers train for up to 40 hours a week. Photo/Andrew Warner

"Every four years, we end up in a quest for the ultimate dream," says Hooper. "If we ever sent a New Zealand synchro team [to the Olympics], it would be interesting to see what reaction we got from the Kiwi public. I'm sure you'd have people saying it's not a sport.

"As they move up in the sport, you have a massive respect for what they do. There's such a lot of discipline."

Have a go
Underwater Hockey
Who? All students
Also, Year 7 & 8 students comfortable splashing about with a mask, fins and snorkel can take part in intermediate grade "have a go" sessions in November.
Equipment provided
When? Sundays 5:15 - 6:15
Where? Baywave
Contact: Lance Potaka 0272874731 or lancepotaka@orcon.net.nz
www.sportsground.co.nz/taurangauhc or Facebook

Synchronised Swimming
Who? Confident swimmers Experience in gymnastics or dance helpful Girls usually start between ages 7 and 11
When? First Saturday of each month
Where? Baywave
Contact: Angela Thomas 5525416