There are niche sports and there is underwater rugby. If we’re talking about this sport, it’s because the world championships in this discipline take place until July 15 at the Claude-Robillard sports complex in Montreal.
Ten countries are represented, each with a women’s team and a men’s team. The objective of this sport is simple: to put the ball in the basket of the opposing team. Except that in the case of underwater rugby, the basket is at the bottom of a swimming pool and the ball is filled with salt water to prevent it from floating.
Equipped with flippers, masks and snorkels, the six players from both teams come to the surface at regular intervals to get some fresh air without ever taking their eyes off the game.
Most of the action is centered around the two nets, not just for strategy, but “because it’s too exhausting to go from one end to the other,” explains Héctor E. Torres, the tournament organizer.
“In water polo, the referees don’t see what’s going on underwater, whereas here we don’t,” she adds.
Surprisingly, there are some similarities to hockey. Infringements are punished by a withdrawal from the game for two minutes and give a numerical advantage to the opposing team. Changes are made on the fly, as all six players on the board can be replaced at any time.
Fans attending games over the next few weeks won’t have to dip their heads underwater to catch the action. Images captured by underwater cameras will be broadcast on screens near the swimming pools.
At first glance, this sport seems to attract both elite athletes and casual athletes. All profiles seem to be represented, but think again: specific attributes are sought by recruiters.
The sport attracts many former swimmers and former water polo players, who already possess these attributes. In the case of Emma Green, she learned about underwater rugby after sending a video to her father.
“I joked to him that he should try,” said the former water polo and synchronized swimmer. Her father took her seriously and then convinced her to try it herself. “After my first session, I quit water polo and never looked back,” she adds.
Héctor E. Torres, who is of Colombian descent himself, points out that his native Colombia particularly stands out in this sport. “They really are the strongest. In preparation for the last championships, they trained every day for four years and this time it is the same. »
If many Colombian nationals are part of the Canadian team, it is because the sport is practiced much more in this South American country. “A lot of them played the sport there and joined the local club when they got here. Since there are fewer players in Canada, it is easier to be selected for the national team. »
As with many little-known sports, underwater rugby athletes are not rolling in gold. Besides the purchase of equipment, including specialized fins that can be worth more than $300, athletes must pay for their own travel, accommodation and much of their training.
Emma Green even found a second job to allow herself to continue practicing her sport. “Weekdays I’m a therapist and weekends I do fundraising reports so I can play. »
But since the selection of the national team in May 2022, the athletes have worked hard. Alexandre Gervais, member of the Canadian team and resident of Timmins, explains that this is his seventh trip to Montreal in the last two months. “We want to represent the country well and show that we have been training very hard in the last year and a half, but it is expensive. »
At the organizational level, sponsors do not flock to events such as the underwater rugby championships, which are sorely lacking in visibility. A crowdfunding campaign has also been launched to help the organization.
“Our break-even point was 26 teams, which pay an entry fee,” explains Héctor E. Torres. Twenty teams registered, but after thinking about it, we still went ahead because this event had to take place. »