Every Thursday and Saturday, a gaggle of New Jerseyans gather in Newark to play a sport almost nobody in the U.S. has heard of: underwater rugby. The players proudly claim that it is the world’s only truly 3D sport.
“It’s kinda like Quidditch,” said veteran rugby player Adrian Breitenbach, referencing the full-contact airborne team sport in the Harry Potter books. “You’re flying through the air, and you can get tackled from above and below.”
How it works is each team of six aims to put a 12-15 pound ball (filled with salt water so that it sinks) into the other team’s basket, which is positioned at the bottom of the deep end of a pool under thirteen to fifteen feet of water. To wrestle the ball away from an opponent, players are allowed to grab and crawl over each other, as long as they don’t put anyone in a chokehold or hurt each other. The game resembles a combination of American football and basketball. Only you can’t breathe.
“If you’re down there and your reliever doesn’t come get you, you can’t just let the other team have the goal,” said Breitenbach, who works as a nurse in an operating room in Manhattan. “Breathing can be done later.”
The players push their lungs to the limit so that they can score or pass the ball off to a teammate before they go up for air. Most players can hold their breath for minutes above the surface, but underwater that time shoots down to 30 or 45 seconds while they fend off opponents mid-game. To keep the game going, an additional six players on each team swim at the surface, ready to swoop in and switch places with their air-deprived teammates. It sounds like a dangerous sport, but the Newark players insist it’s nowhere near as bad as it looks. In fact, the Newark club is open to players of all ages and experience.
“We’ve got little kids playing,” said Christopher Wamble, a quality assurance engineer who started playing underwater rugby last year, after being introduced to it by a friend. One of the youngest players, a nine year-old named Kevin, learned how to swim while playing underwater rugby. “They’re still walking around,” said Wamble,”not limping with broken limbs. It’s low-impact.”
Sure enough, Kevin was unscathed at both the practices NY City Lens attended.
“My favorite thing is when we score,” he said. “We score a lot.”
Underwater rugby was invented by German lifeguards and divers in 1961. While the sport is popular in northern Europe and South America, there are only six underwater rugby teams in the United States. Many of of Newark team members, which started in 2007, are Colombian-born, with a South African and a few Indians in the mix, too. Since the team is so unique in a country that barely knows the sport, the mayor Ras Baraka is helping the team put up posters and run advertisements in the Newark city magazine. Many of the Newark players compete in the underwater rugby world championships, so this could be a chance to grow a highly-competitive hometown team. At first there were only 10 players, now there are 30.
“For the past year, we’ve been picking up a lot of people from the city because we’ve been advertising” said Rovier Mosquera, a team coordinator and one of the founding members. Last year, Newark underwater rugby hosted its first tournament at the Ironbound Aquatic Center. They hooked up underwater cameras to projectors that showed the game to the fans packing the bleachers.
“Sometimes it’s hard to bring people in because it’s hard to see what’s going on under the water,” said Rovier. “But once you see it, once you try it; 90 percent of the time, people get hooked on it.”
Maybe more people will get hooked this weekend, when Newark Underwater rugby will host its 2nd annual tournament at the Ironbound Aquatic Center. The tournament starts at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 23rd and goes until 5 p.m. on Sunday, April 24th.