It's game, wet and splashed

PUBLISHED: 13:55 15 August 2001 | UPDATED: 10:26 03 March 2010

SHOULDER to shoulder, six women line up for the attack.

Brandishing wooden bats, staring into the distance and bearing intent frowns of concentration, their moment awaits.

SHOULDER to shoulder, six women line up for the attack.

Brandishing wooden bats, staring into the distance and bearing intent frowns of concentration, their moment awaits.

In just one brief second they will burst into life and launch their assault - these are the British Waterbabes.

United in a watery quest, these powerful, resilient and determined women are the face behind a little known sport for which the UK is unquestionably responsible.

Octopush – or, underwater hockey - has been doing the circuit of our country's swimming pools for almost 50 years, and yet is still lacks the kind of true credibility which its fans claim it so desperately deserves.

And that's a pitiful plight for a sport which might so easily be labelled as Britain's very own "sports' world discovery".

It was back in 1954, over several cups of tea and a late night discussion among friends, that the very concept of this pool-based competition was formed.

Six restless divers, exhausted from another routine training session, had sat around a kitchen table in Southsea and concocted the basic principles of a game which would go on to inspire watersports lovers the world over.

And today, that inspiration is still as firm as ever.

Hundreds of Octopush clubs are now in operation globally, from Australia to Argentina, the Netherlands to Norway. But even now, the recognition for this sport remains severely poor.

"It's such a shame that this sport does not have the kind of profile which many others enjoy," said Charlie Simms, of the Ipswich Octopush Club.

"It's great for fitness, it suits men and women, and any age person can take it up – so it ought to have massive popularity."

But, unfortunately for the world of Octopush, the sport has notoriously suffered from one distinctive flaw.

"It just isn't a spectator sport," remarked Charlie. "It has such a lot going for it, and it's fast and fun to watch. But from the poolside you just can't expect to see a great deal of the action at all.

"That has probably been one of the biggest drawbacks in trying to get people to take note of underwater hockey, and in trying to get the kind of sponsorship and funding that the players desperately need."

If anyone knows about that drawback first hand, it's the enthusiastic team of UK women who are fighting to win public approval.

They want funding from the sports' bodies, support from the regions, and input from intrigued sports fans. It is a battle they are determined to conquer.

"We feel passionately about Octopush and we want to share that with other people," remarked Michelle Kwok of the British Women's team.

"It has traditionally been a struggle because of the spectating problem, but we hope that technology is helping us to turn the corner on that issue, thanks to underwater filming."

At 37, Michelle has just returned from Belgrade where the GB team pitched a great performance in the European Championships, taking third spot out of ten.

"It was a great result," she said, "but we still feel that the UK could do even better if we were able to encourage more people into the sport through raising the profile and securing a funding.

"At the moment the ladies are all having to pay up for their own training, travel and competing, and it can become a struggle."

She added: "It's so sad to think that we have such potential out there, and that this is a British-founded sport, but because of the weak profile we are not really making our mark as well as we might."

It's the women in particular who have really stepped up their fight to woo other potential competitors into the sport.

They claim it's a feasible activity for a person of any size or stature, and that it could bring enormous fitness benefits.

"You don't have to be a certain shape or strength to take up Octopush, and I think that's what makes it so appealing," said GB team member, Jennifer Latimer.

"I just stumbled into the game, and at 29 I've now been playing for seven years and wouldn't be without it.

"I get a huge adrenaline buzz from it and I wanted to take it to a higher standard so I kept on pushing. But the opportunities are there to enable you to be as casual or competitive about the sport as you like."

The only obvious prerequisite to strapping on your snorkel for a game of Octopush, is a genuine contentment in the water.

It doesn't demand the strongest of swimmers, or the fittest of athletes, just a reasonable comfort in being underwater.

"There are no hard and fast rules about who is best for this sport, and who isn't – it's just a matter of giving it a go," said Liz Newton.

She joined the game as an ex-Lacrosse player, and has found herself completely obsessed with the cycle of training and competing.

She believes it has given huge benefits to her joints, and she is keen to encourage anyone to sample the game just once.

"Right now, there is so much change happening in the sport of Octopush – and particularly the women's competition – that the world is quite literally their oyster, for anyone who wants to give it a shot.

She said: "I can only speak for myself, but I think it is an incredible sport and it doesn't discriminate against anyone.

"We should be proud that it began in Britain, and that should make us even more keen to create an impression on the international circuit."

And with the feminine enthusiasm of the GB Ladies team, we're certainly on course for some serious medal-winning hopes.

We already have the seeds of talent, the drive, and a will to win – so put that with a touch of historic patriotism and this watery challenge might well be one to watch.

It may not have the reputation, the spectator appeal, or the global presence of sports like football, but this is one activity which could still place British sportsters in the very best of worldwide ranking.


So how did I fare?

AFTERS years of club swimming, and countless hours spent notching up the lengths of our region's pools – I was secretly hoping that I'd take to Octopush just like a duck to water.

In fact, truth be told, it isn't considered a particular advantage.

If you were going to have had any specific sporting experience to help you with this activity, then diving is generally thought of as the perfect asset – and I've never been near a snorkel in my life.

But, according to my designated instructor Liz, I'm something of a natural in this aspect, and getting to grips with the underwater breathing did not prove slightly difficult.

"Some find it quite hard at first," explained Liz, "but it's probably easier on those who are relaxed in the water, and who used to controlling their oxygen intake as in swimming.

"As soon as we get people used to the snorkelling, we can go straight into the Octopush principles."

Those principles are relatively straight forward.

Each player wears fins, snorkel and a hat, and wields a small 'pusher'. Six team members are in the water at any one time (with two reserves ready to swap at anytime) and the object is to score goals by directing a 'puck' into the correct gully.

It's fast, it's furious – but most importantly, it really is fun.

Theoretically this is a non-contact sport, and I'm told that at the highest level, very little physical touch takes place – though you might have to expect a few fierce tackles as a determined beginner.

You might not have imagined it for a bunch of women floating about in the water, but this really is a very taxing, physical and thoroughly exhilarating sport.

I'm not too sure how I fared on a professional level, but, without any doubt, I'm certainly going to be heading back to the pool for another go.

This one may not be the best ever spectator sport, but if you're brave enough to be the participant – this game takes a lot of beating.

For more information about the Ipswich Octopush club, call Charlie Simms on Ipswich 212563.

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