Outdoors

Lori Riley: There are only seven underwater rugby teams in the country, and one of them is in Connecticut

When people talk about playing rugby, the first thing a non-rugby player usually thinks is, "OK ... lots of bruises, maybe a broken bone or two at some point ..." Scrums. Crazy. A crazy sport.

So when Laura Bedoya, a junior political science and Latin American studies major at UConn from East Haven, started to describe how she played underwater rugby ... wait, what? Rugby ... under water?

"The reaction is always, 'Wait, what?' " Bedoya said, laughing. "I always have a video ready on my phone. I'm always trying to recruit ex-swimmers and they're like, 'No, I'm good, I don't want to do that.'

"You know what sounds really scary to me? Land rugby."

So I went to see what underwater rugby is all about recently at the Connecticut Makos' practice at the Wilbur Cross High school pool in New Haven. Laura's father Jose, who played the sport in Colombia, where he grew up, started the team about 18 years ago when he and his wife Eliana came to the United States and settled in East Haven.

This year, the Makos won the North American League national women's club championship and will head to Germany Nov. 22-24 to compete in the Champions Cup.

All three of the Bedoya girls – Laura and her younger sisters Daniela and Isabela – play. All three are former competitive swimmers. Jose is a swim coach as well and still plays. Eliana used to play but she is more like the club manager now. The boys and girls play together in New Haven but on the national level, the teams are separate.

The sport is relatively unknown in the U.S. with only seven teams throughout the country. When Jose came to the U.S., the only team he could find was in Boston, so he decided to start his own.

"We traveled there, they came here, and we played together," Eliana said. "People from Colombia immigrate here and that's how the sport has been expanding."

The sport, which started in a diving club in Germany in the early 1960s, involves a weighted ball and two goals that are sunk on the bottom of either side of the width of the swimming pool. Teams have 12 players and six at a time are in the water – two defenders, two goalies and two forwards – and the object is to put the ball in the basket. The other six are on the pool deck, waiting to substitute in when their partner comes up for a breather and flops onto the pool deck like a seal coming out of the water.

"A lot of our training is focused on apnea," said Laura, who is also a member of the national women's team. "I guess what gets people scared is that you're going to die because you're holding your breath. But you know how far you can push yourself. The apnea training really helps and going into the game with a low heart rate really helps. If your heart rate is up and you're nervous, you're going to run out of breath faster."

The players wear snorkels and masks so when they surface, they can breath and still look down and see where the action is underneath, and flippers so they can swim faster and stay underwater.

It's not exactly the best spectator sport but when they go to the tournaments, Laura said, there are underwater video cameras which show the action on a screen on the pool deck so people can see what's going on.

"It's all about reaction and knowing your place in the water," said Laura, who described it as a three-dimensional sport. "Your teammate is your shadow."

Natasha Samaniego, 14, is a sophomore at Platt High in Meriden. She started swimming with Jose four years ago and he asked her if she wanted to try rugby.

"I like it because it's a team sport," Samaniego said. "I like how you get to have a lot of contact with other people."

Samaniego is not very big. She's also a goalie. Other players try to push her out of the way while she's guarding the basket with her back to it. It can get rough down there.

"Yeah," she said. "You kick and move your hands and try to keep your back down on the goal so when people try to lift you up to put the ball in, they can't move you. Sometimes with the stronger, bigger people, it's harder."

There's no tackling above the neck, no grabbing flippers and no head butting. The ball has to stay underwater. But pretty much anything else goes.

Mabel Rivadeneira, 15, is a junior at the Sound School in New Haven and a defender for the Makos.

"I started playing two years ago," she said. "The first time I tried it I was like 'Oh my goodness, this is crazy.' I didn't like it. It was terrifying. I barely knew how to swim so it was way harder for me.

"I stayed for a few months, started participating more and felt more comfortable. Now I like it."

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