It is Saturday morning at Queenstown Swimming Complex. Over at the deep pool, a group of individuals in snorkels and flippers surface and disappear repeatedly.
A few curious onlookers stop to observe for a few moments before moving on – unaware that underneath the calm surface, Singapore’s first underwater rugby players are tumbling around, roughing each other up and generally having a ball of a time.
That’s right – underwater rugby, despite having been founded in 1961, remains an alien concept in Singapore.
It was a German, Ludwig von Bersuda, who came up with the idea of having two teams fight to outscore the other by putting a saltwater-filled ball into a metal basket at each end of a pool.
The sport slowly caught on, particularly in Scandinavian countries – Norway are the current male and female world champions – and was officially recognized by the World Underwater Federation (CMAS) in 1978.
Now it’s here in Singapore, thanks to 29-year-old engineer Khee Chia How.
For Khee, it all stemmed from the desire to continue playing a sport he first took up in 2006 during his university studies in Australia.
“I didn’t even know how to snorkel or free dive (then),” Khee recalled to Yahoo Singapore. “I started without much ambition; I just wanted to have fun.”
He became part of the first-ever underwater rugby team in Australia, took part in tournaments and after graduating, even got the chance to play for a Norwegian club in their professional league during an overseas work stint.
“I trained with them and I was consistent,” he said. “In order to play in that league, you have to of a certain level. As the only Asian, I was very honoured.”
Starting in Singapore
When he returned home in 2013, Khee realised the only way he could carry on playing was to form his own club in Singapore. Thus the First Asian Team Underwater Rugby (FATUWR) was born in May 2014.
While there are claims from Japan and the Philippines, Khee remains “very certain we are the only Asian team in the world”.
FATUWR’s 12 to 15 members, which include females, show up for around two hours of training every Saturday morning at Queenstown.
Their metal goals were welded by a friend of Khee’s in Indonesia, while the specialized balls were imported from Germany and filled with his own improvised pump.
Most players were initially from Singapore’s underwater hockey team, but the make-up is more diverse now as word about the team’s existence spreads.
“We are moving forward and getting other non-experienced members who have never snorkeled or dived before,” Khee said. “The most important thing is for people to have the mindset of wanting to learn new things.”
Anyone can play
Khee emphasized that anyone can pick up underwater rugby, which pits two teams of six against each other. A further six players can be substituted in any time. Two scuba-diving referees stay underwater with a third one outside the pool.
The only resemblance with association rugby is that full-on contact is allowed. Otherwise, underwater rugby is arguably the only three-dimensional sport around, with players able to move in any direction and use all four limbs.
“Girls sometimes feel physically intimidated, but I've taught the girls how to defend themselves in the water,” he said. “When you have the ball, anybody can come and grab you and pull you away. It’s a team sport; you don’t have to have the best breath-hold in the world.”
A fair bit of physical and mental endurance is required to make extra bursts for the ball, or to just hold your breath for a split-second more. Khee is aware of safety issues like drowning and constantly reminds everyone to look out for one another whilst playing.
Growth and future
FATUWR’s main challenge now is to grow the sport in Singapore. “We need to reach out to the community and let Singapore that we exist; that we are training, playing, having fun and also to remove the stigma of it being an extreme sport,” Khee said.
He also believes it is important to be competitive in order to increase interest. There are plans for FATUWR to host international tournaments in future, and they may take part in one in Brisbane next April.
Overall, Khee is confident Singapore can excel in the sport. “I see a lot of potential,” he said, pointing to FATUWR’s logo.
“I chose the fugu (Japanese pufferfish) because of its Asian context… when it’s under aggression, it can become deadly and venomous. We can be at that level.”