Saturday, July 3, 2010
Tackling underwater rugby at 74
By age 74, the closest many people come to sports is watching it on television from their recliner chair, remote control in hand.
Not Tom Elliott of Brantford, Ontario. He not only runs the underwater rugby club in Brantford, but is a player – tackling and being tackled in the pool. He also plays underwater hockey and is a free diver – a sport in which participants descend to great depths without scuba gear.
“I have a personal trainer who puts me through strenuous gym workouts,” says Tom. “I also run for cross training.”
The health advantages that an active lifestyle promotes are well known. So are more traditional fitness sports such as running, tennis and gymnasium workouts. Less known is underwater rugby, which is played by people of a wide age range.
The Brantford underwater rugby club is one of two in Canada, the other being in Montreal. It is much bigger overseas. It was started in Germany, but is popular in Scandinavian countries and Eastern Europe. In the United States there are clubs in: Boston, Mass.; Newark, N.J.; Greenville, S.C.; and Austin, Tex. It`s also played in Colombia, Peru and Venezuela, with the latter country just starting is program.
The Brantford club is composed primarily of underwater hockey players and free divers, with the latter comprising about one-third of its players. Elsewhere, the free diving component is not nearly as prevalent. The Brantford exception is because many members of the club Freedive Toronto decided to join. Underwater rugby and free diving, as well as underwater hockey, are logical extensions of each other, helping to train the body to extend the time one can stay under water. These players are comfortable working hard underwater.
Like its hockey counterpart, underwater rugby players prefer a constant-depth pool. That is where the similarity ends. The playing area in the rugby pool is a maximum of 18 metres long, compared to 25 metres for hockey. Rugby requires a shorter playing area because it is played in deeper water, which provides plenty of playing space. The depth enables players to get vertical separation from opponents. The pool’s depth must be 3.5 to five metres. The Brantford pool, at the Wayne Gretzky Sport Centre, is almost the maximum allowed. For hockey, depth is a factor because if the pool is too deep it requires too much breath hold to get to the bottom and if too shallow, it is too crowded and injuries increase. The ideal depth is two to three metres.
The round underwater rugby ball is made of a vinyl material and is 50 centimetres in circumference. It is filled with salt water, giving it negative buoyancy, but at the same time the weight necessary to enable passes up to two or three metres under water. Passes above the water surface are not allowed. Whenever the ball is raised out of the water it is ruled out of bounds.
To score, a player must put the ball in the basket on the bottom of the pool in the opponents’ end. The diameter at the top of the basket is 40 centimetres. This makes scoring more difficult than in rugby played on grass because it concentrates the scoring area. “They (defenders) surround the basket,” says Tom. “It can get quite hectic. You have to wait for an opening (such as when a defender has to return to the surface for air). ”
Teams consist of six players in the water and five substitutes.
“You work hard and then get out,” says Tom, explaining that a player`s shift in the pool usually lasts one to two minutes. But because of the intensity of the sport they use up oxygen quickly, which means they may be down only 10 seconds before resurfacing for air and then quickly going down again to rejoin the fray.
“There are some amazing feats with high-level players, swimming from one side of the pool to the other (with the ball).”
They must try to avoid being tackled by an opponent. Players may not grab a player’s equipment or swim suit, hold an opponent in a manner that might cause strangulation, intentionally kick someone, or do anything that may cause injury. They may only tackle the ball carrier.
The injuries that do occur are usually minor, such as scrapes or bruises. In underwater hockey, with a heavy puck and a stick in the hands of each player, the injuries can be more serious.
As in hockey, men and women often compete together on underwater rugby teams. In hockey, smaller players have the advantage of agility. But in rugby, size and strength are positives.
Brantford has an underwater rugby program, which Tom runs, for players as young as eight. Players of high-school age also play. Most of the adult participants are in their 20s, 30s or early 40s, but some are in their 50s and very few in their 60s.
Then there is Tom, who like the Energizer Bunny, just keeps going.
“At age 41, I got serious about fitness and never stopped,” he says. “Last fall, I played a tournament for underwater rugby in Colombia and one month in Denmark. Two years ago I played for a month in Spain. It is an excellent way to experience other countries. There have been many years of underwater hockey travel before that.”
A retired musician who played the bassoon in symphony orchestras, Tom has spent a lot of time on top of the water – in a canoe – as well as under the water. After snowshoe camping in the winter months, he turns to canoeing trips in the spring.
“Last April I did a solo canoe trip, from Buffalo to Hamilton, in six days, camping along the way. That was the fourth such trip in recent years between Brantford/Hamilton and my mom’s house east of Buffalo. It’s a unique adventure using various water routes.”
Put all the activity together and it begins to make sense how Tom Elliott can still be battling for the ball deep in the pool at age 74.