Students dive into new sport

Roger Bacon sends group to world championship

By Michael D. Clark,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS — A half-dozen Cincinnati teens are representing America in world championship competition for a sport so new that the initial reaction of many people is joking disbelief.

But the six Roger Bacon High School students, who will make up one-half of the United States Junior Underwater Hockey Team competing at the World Underwater Hockey Championships in Calgary, Alberta, this July, have learned patience in explaining this unusual aquatic game.

No, they reply calmly, underwater hockey isn't what happens when the ice rink melts. It's a vigorous derivation of hockey on the bottom surface of a swimming pool.

Combining aspects of water polo, hockey, basketball and soccer, the sport meshes splashy grace with the occasional rough-and-tumble of a rugby scrum.

Roger Bacon is the only high school in the nation with its own team, and junior Andrew Kalvelage is glad of it. The 17-year-old will be among the six representing America in the junior championship and is an enthusiastic ambassador of the game.

“I'm definitely excited about it. It gets physical down there at times,” he said, nodding toward the large, indoor pool at Northern Kentucky University that the team rents for its weekly practice.

Minutes later, as if to demonstrate his point, he emerged from the pool bloody in the face after being cut by the hard rubber edge of a swimming fin.

The metal puck weighs three pounds. Players wear customized gloves to protect their hands while wielding foot-long, hooked wooden sticks to push, pass and slide the puck along the pool bottom.

Without an underwater pool window, or video cameras, spectators are left high and dry.

The game began in the 1950s, when British scuba divers invented the hybrid sport as a way to maintain their underwater fitness and lung capacity.

Six players comprise a team, and each wears a mask with mouth guard, snorkel, fins and headgear designed mainly to protect ear drums, which if unprotected underwater could burst from pressure if struck. Points are scored when the puck is pushed into metallic, three-meter goals at the bottom of each end of the pool.

Cincinnati owes its prominence in the junior underwater hockey world to Paul Wittekind, a Roger Bacon history teacher and former member of the Ohio State University team.

Since 1997, the coach for both Roger Bacon and the U.S. Junior Championship team donates considerable time, effort and equipment to making sure the school's team — which includes 30 players, six of them girls — can compete.

Freshman Sarah Stump was a swimmer who initially was skeptical about playing, but quickly dove in.

“Women can get down there and compete athletically along with the boys,” she said.

Their varsity record is 3-4. Every game — about two dozen a year — is an away game, often in Illinois, Texas and California. The team plays clubs and colleges. The long travel builds team camaraderie, Mr. Wittekind said.

“We are all ambassadors for the sport ... but it would really be nice to have some other high school teams in the area to play,” he said.

Besides Andrew, the national team members are Wayne Bevis, Anthony Gerke, Collin Wetzel, Brian Ludwin and Evan Wehmeyer.