I select the sports I visit here at Oxford through a very rigorous process. And by that I mean I pull up the sports catalogue on the official Oxford website and scroll through the various clubs until I find the one that amuses me the most. I’m still hoping to get a visit with the walking team and the korfball team! Once I’ve made my selection, I send out an email to get an invitation to a team practice.
This week, I picked a sport called octopush, a game I knew absolutely nothing about, but sounded like the most outrageous thing I’d ever heard of. I was completely correct in that assertion. I knew I was in for a ride when the email from the team captain contained the sentence: “I would suggest that if you have a swimming costume with you that you get in the pool to watch as it is very hard to follow from the surface.” (Side note: is there a more British phrase than “swimming costume?”)
Being that it’s the middle of winter and there was actual snow on the ground over the weekend, I didn’t have a swimming costume on me, so Saturday morning I rolled out of bed, ran to the mall, bought a 3 pound salmon-colored swimming costume and headed out to the pool. At Oxford’s Iffley pool, I met Tom Scott, an Oxford student in his 7th year of study (graduate+undergraduate) and an octopush player.
Tom led me into the pool area and started gathering equipment for me to try on. To be completely honest, I wasn’t expecting to actually play octopush, just to float in the pool while the competition raged on around me, but everyone at the practice was incredibly nice and welcoming as I stepped into their sport. But before we got started, Tom sat down with me for a brief interview, where he explained what the hell octopush actually is.
Octopush, or underwater hockey, originated in England in 1954, when a scuba diving club founder named Alice Cleverly invented the game as a way of keeping divers active during cold winter months. Since then it has developed into a full fledged sport, played in over 20 countries including the UK and the United States. It was on the table for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics in Japan, but didn’t have enough participating nations to qualify.
The basic premise of the game is the same as hockey; two teams compete to push a puck across a span of ground into a goal. The only catch is that the puck is weighted with lead and sits at the bottom of a two-meter pool. Instead of longer sticks, the competitors use short, footlong pieces of plastic wielded like knives.
Tom described the competition to me himself: “A lot of people think ‘how do you play hockey at the bottom of the pool?’ and they think of ice hockey or something like that, it’s nothing like that. You hold the stick completely differently. You get possession of the puck, and the idea is to work with your team to get that into your opponent’s goal as many times as you can.”
With my interview recorded, and a brief understanding of the game now registered in my brain, I stepped into the octopush team’s armory to get equipped for practice. They gave me all the necessary equipment: a set of goggles, a snorkel, a protective glove, a cap like the ones used in water polo, a set of fins, and a small plastic stick. There’s an enormous amount of equipment required to play the game, all with a very specific intention.
As we got in the pool for warm-ups, I was reminded just how out of shape I actually was. This was the first time the team I visited actually requested that I play with them; rowing, polo, and cricket all let me watch peacefully from the sideline. Swimming is one thing, swimming with a snorkel is another, and swimming with fins makes the activity feel even more foreign. I swam competitively in middle school, but that seemed a distant memory as I attempted to do laps with the rest of the team.
The warm-up got progressively more challenging as we began swimming along the bottom of the pool to improve our ability to hold our breath. Breath is crucial to the sport of octopush, you can only control the puck and contest other players for as long as you can stay on the bottom of the pool. This single factor makes the game far more interesting than a similar contest in which you attempt ball movement, like basketball, hockey or soccer. Imagine if you could only dribble in basketball while you were holding your breath.
According to Tom, getting used to holding your breath is the hardest part of octopush. “It’s telling your brain not to breathe whilst you do really intensive exercise, because most people as a kid have gone to a swimming pool and tried to sit at the bottom as long as they can, and you know, you can get 30-40 seconds. But if you add to that swimming as hard as you can, trying to think tactically and play as a team, it all gets very overwhelming. Beginners, you often hear them say, ‘oh it’s really fun but I just wish I could stay down longer,’ and that’s just something that takes a while of doing it again and again to make your body better at putting up with it.”
After warm-ups, Tom ran me through some individual drills, where I learned to maneuver on the bottom of the pool with the puck, and execute some basic actions, such as shooting and “tackling,” which involves no contact whatsoever, but is the term used for stealing the puck from another player on an individual carry. The stick is hooked somewhat, which is useful for stealing, but also sending the puck flying in an aerodynamic fashion to maximize underwater movement. It’s called a flick and I didn’t understand how to do it at all.
As I reeled from holding my breath for so long, I excused myself from any further exercise and spectated a couple of points in their scrimmage match. The sport is co-ed, so men and women play on the same team. Each point begins with the puck being placed in the center of the pool and both sides swimming for first possession, a la dodgeball.
Tom was right, you really did need to be underwater to appreciate the sport. From the dry land, the activity looked like a bunch of heads popping up for gasps of air and incoherent splashes as people moved underwater. But watching from the sidelines with my goggles on, the sport was truly beautiful. Teamwork abounds in the complex puck movements that the game requires, and possession changes constantly. People float around at different levels in the water, waiting for an opportunity to strike or gain an advantage. The flippers swishing around as everyone moves in one direction looks like a school of tropical fish, all heading towards the same location. It is a truly unique experience.
Luckily, you’ll all have that experience, because as soon as I get back to Stanford, I’m totally starting an official octopush club! This sport is too good to leave to the British. Until next time, enjoy March Madness and the start of finals!
Contact Bobby Pragada at bpragada ‘at’ stanford.edu.