Nick Anthony was a swimmer in high school. Now when he packs his bag for practice, he makes sure to throw in a stick, flippers and lead puck with his swimsuit. Though he would’ve never imagined pairing these things up, Anthony found a new passion when he learned how to use them for MSU’s underwater hockey team.
With 50 club sports offered at MSU, there’s bound to be a niche for students of all physical, athletic and competitive backgrounds.
Underwater hockey is an experience that certainly qualifies as stepping out of the box. Though it may seem unusual in the United States, the sport is actually very popular and highly competitive in many other counties such as Australia and New Zealand. “Underwater hockey is the most popular sport that no one’s heard of,” said sophomore and athletic training major Nick Anthony. He’s the club’s treasurer, and in his second year on the team.
Players wear flippers, a diving mask, snorkel, a glove on the playing hand and water polo cap while carrying a small, 14-inch stick to push around the lead puck, which is approximately the size of an ice hockey puck. Underwater hockey features two teams of up to ten players each, with six in play and as many as four substitutes per team. There are three offensive players, or forwards, and three defensive players, or backs.
Underwater hockey has been a club sport at MSU since 2006 and attracts people from all different athletic backgrounds, including some who were competitive swimmers in high school and others who have never swam for a team before in their life.“We have all different types of people on our team,” Anthony said. “Some have never swam in their lives, some were swimmers in high school like myself and others have been playing underwater hockey for some time. But no matter who they are, all come and have fun.”
Kendall Simon, a senior animal science major and president of the underwater hockey club, was a complete newcomer to the sport when she first joined. She now plays for a highly competitive Cincinnati-based team that recruits players from all over the country. “My sophomore year here my older sister got me into underwater hockey,” Simon said. “I had swum before, but never for a team. I definitely wasn’t the type of person who went and swam laps, either. I really wasn’t into it.”
Simon, who was a basketball and volleyball player in high school, found the transition to underwater hockey to be much more than she anticipated. “It was a big shock for me at first. Underwater hockey was completely different than any other sport I had ever done,” Simon said. “From outside the water it seems slow, but it’s actually really fast. What people don’t realize is that it’s a 3-D sport. There are people above, below and all around you battling for the puck at all times.”
Though underwater hockey is not a very spectator-friendly sport due to the fact that the game is played at the bottom of a pool, important tournaments are filmed by videographers who are right in the pool with the teams.
The sport is very unique in an age where men and women are separated in athletic competition, as it provides an equal opportunity for both sexes to compete against each other without there being any true advantage for either group.“This is one of the true co-ed sports, as women and men play together and against each other,” Anthony said. “There really is no edge; it’s truly equal terms.”
Apart from the name, underwater hockey shares little in common with ice hockey besides fly substitutions, a puck and stick. Players need to be very well conditioned to swim around the pool, with good strength in their arms to battle for the puck at the bottom. The sport is great for building lung capacity and lateral movement as well. “This is one of the hardest sports to play the first time,” said Anthony. “There is no way anybody is ready to be really good at it the first time, even as a swimmer. That’s why we tell people interested in joining that they have to come back at least twice before deciding whether or not they want to be on the team. But, like most sports, the more you play, the better you get.”
The underwater hockey team hosts one of the biggest tournaments in the Midwest, the Tournament of Love, on Valentine’s Day weekend at the IM West pool. The tournament attracts 14 teams from all across the country and several more from Canada.
Like underwater hockey, wheelchair tennis is another sport that might not grace ESPN headlines, but has just as much significance for those who play it. Gene Orlando, head coach of Michigan State’s wheelchair tennis team, has seen how important the sport is to those who play and is determined to keep this opportunity open for years to come.“We accept and embrace anyone who wants to come out and play with us,” Orlando said. “The team is based at Michigan State, but we have three players who aren’t MSU students. They come from the suburbs of Detroit, Grand Rapids and other places. There aren’t too many teams to play, there’s few tournaments, but we’re committed to doing this and planning on doing it here for a long time.”
MSU first had a wheelchair tennis team back in 1991, but after former coach Stan Drobac retired, the team was discontinued. Coach Orlando revived it this year. Orlando, who coached alongside Drobac, was happy to get the program rolling again, regardless of the number of people came out to play. “We have had a maximum of five people, two girls and three guys, but it doesn’t matter whether we have one or ten people,” Orlando said. “One counts just as much to me.”
Wheelchair tennis is a form of tennis adapted for those who have disabilities in their lower bodies. The size of the court, balls and rackets are the same as regular tennis, but the two major differences are that the ball can bounce up to two times before being called dead and the use of specially designed wheelchairs.
The team might be small, but Orlando has embraced the chance to teach the game and give people in wheelchairs an opportunity to exercise and see the progress they make after every practice.“The players learn quick, we teach them how to get in position and give them tips on getting the racket up high and low and being consistent,” Orlando said. “This is really offering an opportunity for some one who wouldn’t normally have a chance to come and play and learn from a coach.”
Orlando would like to see wheelchair tennis grow in popularity and hopes that promotion of the sport will spread the word around, but is glad to keep coaching no matter how big or small it is. “The sport is being promoted within the collegiate ranks and definitely is going to grow,” Orlando said. “As the word gets out, more people will be attracted to come from all over the place, not just students. If it grows a lot that’s great, but a small group is fine as well.”
MSU students are discovering new sports and getting involved around campus, no matter their physical or athletic capability. Even if underwater hockey and wheelchair tennis never make it onto the SportsCenter highlight reels, the club level is a great place to try out a sport that’s a little out of the box.