Underwater rugby: Norway takes gold and silver in Champs

Photo: Michael Harjes / Wikimedia Commons  Underwater rugby is a unique sport played with snorkel masks and a saltwater-filled ball.

Photo: Michael Harjes / Wikimedia Commons
Underwater rugby is a unique sport played with snorkel masks and a saltwater-filled ball.

Molly Jones
Norwegian American Weekly

With the goal of defending their world champion titles in the uncommon sport, the men’s and women’s underwater rugby teams of Norway competed in the World Championships in Santiago de Cali, Colombia, from July 26 to Aug. 1. Of the 13 countries represented, the Norwegian teams were favored to repeat their successes from 2011 and win the competition once again.

The men’s team started off with a close 2-1 match against Colombia, followed by two easy victories: 34-0 against Australia and 30-0 against Canada. With three wins, Norway was sent straight to the semifinals to oppose Sweden. It was a tough, low-scoring game, but Norway came out with a 1-0 win and advanced to the finals.

Competing for the gold, Norway faced Germany. Early in the first half, Norway’s Iver Bjørnerem scored an easy goal off of a penalty. Germany had a similar opportunity shortly after, but it was saved by Norwegian keeper Bård Inge Pettersen. The Germans continued to play hard, but Norway’s defense was stronger and enabled them to keep the score at 1-0 for the remainder of the game, defending the world champion title.

The women also won all of their games in the preliminary round, with a 2-1 win over Germany, 27-0 against the U.S., and 11-0 over Denmark. This sent them straight into the semifinals, also facing Sweden. The first half was rough with few chances to score, but Norway won the ball in the start of second half and Norwegian Kathrine Rasch Moyo scored shortly after. They managed to keep control of the ball for most of the half—although suffering a bit when team captain Cecilie Skåre took a knee to the chest—and retained the 1-0 lead.

Once again, Norway faced Germany in the finals to defend the world champion title. The Norwegian team was feeling fairly confident after defeating the Germans earlier in the championship, but the opponents stepped it up for the finals. Norway let in an early goal and then struggled to defend Germany’s strong offense. In the end, Germany won 3-0 over the Norwegians, who had to settle for the silver this time around.

It’s no wonder that the Germans were the primary competition though; the unusual game actually originated in Germany as part of a training regimen for diving clubs in the early 1960s. It quickly became marketed as a sport and by the 1970s it had been introduced to Scandinavia. In 1978, underwater rugby was officially recognized as a sport by the World Underwater Federation CMAS, and the first world championship was held two years later.

Even though the name suggests commonalities with traditional rugby, the sport doesn’t have much in common with its namesake. Rather it is played with a saltwater-filled ball, which causes it to sink slowly, in a swimming pool ranging from 12 to 18 meters long, 8 to 12 meters wide, and 3.5 to 5 meters deep.

Each of the teams is comprised of six starters and six substitutes wearing fins, a diving mask, and a snorkel. Generally, the six players are organized as two forwards, two backs, and two goalkeepers. Although each game is quite short—two 15 minute halves with a five minute halftime—it is strenuous and requires lots of substitutions.

At the beginning of each half, the ball starts in the middle of the pool floor. Players must have their hands on the wall; once the buzzer sounds they race to get the ball. The objective is to score into the opponent’s goal, a small steel bucket located at the bottom of the pool. The ball can be passed in any direction, but it cannot leave the water.

According to the players, the sport of underwater rugby is especially challenging because of its three dimensionality. At any given time, one must be aware of what is happening above, below, and to the side.

For whatever reason, Norway has a history of excelling in this unique game. “The men have mostly been among the top three or four throughout history. There is certainly a tradition for underwater rugby at a high level in Norway,” says Jon Reidar Heggdal to Aftenposten, who plays for Molde Undervannsklubb and is one of the world’s best players.

In four years, Norway will undoubtedly return to the World Championships, the men looking to defend their title once again, and the women with the goal of taking it back.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 21, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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