#SEAGames2019: Love at first puck

Jeff Canoy, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 13 2019 06:02 PM | Updated as of Nov 18 2019 04:26 PM

Christopher Policarpo is a man who rarely has his feet on land.

On some days, he’s up in the air — hundreds of feet above ground — working as a flight attendant for the national carrier. Sleek, black luggage in tow and navy-blue coat hanging over a freshly pressed white shirt. Catching his breath as he shuttles from city to city.

On most days, however, you’ll find him on the opposite side. Down below — way, way below. Darting in and out of a 50-meter pool, training with a dozen other athletes. Biting a plastic tube, heavy-duty goggles strapped on, and swim briefs in check. Armed with a short stick in his left hand. Gasping for breath at every swerve.

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Pauline Adalid, ABS-CBN News

For the uninitiated, the scene would read off as appropriately strange: a bunch of adults thrashing wildly in the water, fighting over something that’s invisible from above, and trying their best to avoid death by drowning.

For those in the know — and there are only few in the Philippines — this is an actual sport.

Since its inception in the early 50s, those from the United Kingdom have called it Octopush.

For the rest of the world, the sport is known as underwater hockey.

Christopher Policarpo during the awarding of the MVP in the Australian Championship. Handout

While the name itself is aptly self-explanatory (“it’s hockey, but you know, underwater”), it gets more difficult in a nation that doesn’t know what hockey is to begin with.

The Philippine National Team certainly knows this.

Policarpo himself found out about the sport on a cursory Google search. He was looking for a sport to do and stumbled upon a video of the sport.

“So, nag-search lang ako, nag-research ako, walang ibang tao akong kakilala sa sport na ‘to. Tapos noong nahanap ko na yung sport na ito na triny ko kumausap ng mga officials ng grupo. May nagpakilala sa’kin tapos dinala ako sa laro.”

It piqued his interest. Which is saying something since he grew up afraid of the water.

“Na-impress ako sa mga bata, na-challenge ako. Kumbaga kasi sila, ang gagaling nila sumisid, yung binibigay sakanila na instructions galing sa mga coaches, nae-execute nila ng tama so naging motivation.”

Policarpo took the literal dive. He joined a club, learned the ropes, and discovered that he had a knack for the sport. As his eventual teammates would describe it: It was love at first puck.

“Late bloomer. Sobrang late bloomer na. Kung ikukumpara mo sa mga ibang mga naglalaro ng underwater hockey na nag-start sila na teen years palang nila or mas bata pa.”

Policarpo is now 37 years old. But the late bloomer has more than proven his mettle in the pool.

Australia’s nationals had invited Polcarpo — twice now — to play with the best underwater hockey players in the world. Not only did he get the gold, he was also named MVP.

Policarpo found the sport through a search engine. Google Policarpo now and you’ll find that he’s one of the best in the sport.

So, what exactly is underwater hockey?

It’s a breathtaking sport in more ways than one.

Players from two competing teams dive into the water and hold their breaths for as long as they can. They’re armed with 13-inch, hard-plastic sticks, also called “pushers”. It’s shorter than the familiar hockey stick.

The object of the game is to get a 3-pound lead called a puck into a goal located at the opposite sides of the court. Unlike traditional hockey, there’s no goalie to block shots. Games last for two 15-minute halves with a 5-minute rest period in between.

Team manager Dennis Valdes described it in terms that a basketball-obsessed nation would better understand.

“Parang basketball din. Pag naka-goal ka, 1 point sa’yo yun. Pag naka-goal ‘yung kalaban, 1 point against you. Paramihan ng goal. Sa basketball, lima lang naglalaro, ito, anim ang naglalaro sa tubig. Pero hold your breath sila. Bababa sila tapos meron ding mga zone defense, may mga formation din yan. So, the trick is to pass the puck.

“Pag napasa mo, hindi ka na-guard ng kalaban, syempre makakalusot na yun, makaka-goal na yun. So that's the way to score a goal. Pasa, pasa, pasa, get free, pag nakalamang na yun, makaka-goal yun.”

Scoring against another team in a sport played above ground is already difficult. Doing it underwater is even trickier. While the game is a non-contact sport, it’s close to impossible not to do so when you’re submerged and trying to out-maneuver others to retain control of the puck.

“Kagaya rin ng basketball. Bawal ang mga foul. Diba kaya nga tinatawag na foul pero syempre in the action of the game, kung minsan hindi maiiwasan na madadale ng konti pero di naman yan sinasadya eh. It's just that sa tubig, mas mahirap mag-break sa tubig kasi kung nasa basketball court tayo, madali. Pe-preno ka, madali ka pumreno. Eh sa tubig, pano ka pe-preno?”

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Pauline Adalid, ABS-CBN News

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Pauline Adalid, ABS-CBN News

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Pauline Adalid, ABS-CBN News

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Pauline Adalid, ABS-CBN News

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Pauline Adalid, ABS-CBN News

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Pauline Adalid, ABS-CBN News

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Pauline Adalid, ABS-CBN News

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Handout

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Handout

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Pauline Adalid, ABS-CBN News

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Pauline Adalid, ABS-CBN News

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Pauline Adalid, ABS-CBN News

Breaks may be an issue in the game but the Philippine Team itself is an unstoppable force now in regional competitions.

That wasn’t always the case. Valdes has been around from the sport’s humble introduction to the country, and the birthing pains that followed.

“Nag-start ito mga 1979. At that time, actually nasa UP pa ako noon, tapos sa scuba diving community kami. Kapag bumabagyo, wala kaming magawa. Di naman kami maka-dive so naghanap kami ng sport na pwedeng malaro habang bumabagyo. So na-suggest ng mga divers in the United Kingdom na subukan namin itong Octopush or underwater hockey. So, nasubukan and then sa school dumami yung naglalaro.”

While the sport has been around in the country since the seventies, it wasn’t until the early aughts when “enthusiasts” became serious and wanted something more. The country sent a team to the world championships in 2004, where the best underwater hockey teams face off.

“At that time, bagets na bagets tayo. Medyo last place ang dating. Doon na-realize na merong mga players na gusto ma-improve yung hockey sa ‘Pinas. So, ang ginawa namin is we organized a National Sports Association. Para ma-recognize kami ng Philippine Olympic Committee tapos ng Philippine Sports Commission. Makatulong sila sa funding. And with the funding, makaka-develop kami ng sport.”

The Philippine underwater hockey team. Handout

The debut may have been a dud but that didn’t stop the team from trying again. The training continued even if it meant sacrifices by the players.

For one, underwater hockey isn’t a cheap sport. Some of the equipment used are sourced abroad as local markets aren’t exactly selling items for a sport nobody knows about.

The training schedule is also grueling: 8 to 10 sessions a week. 3 games, 3 swims, 3 trips to the gym.

But the more grueling part: they have to do all these while keeping day jobs.

In the team, you’d find an architect, businessmen, managers and an ophthalmologist.

Policarpo has to juggle a busy work schedule as a flight attendant. After he lands at the airport, he’d usually rush to the PhilSports complex to train with the team. The rush never stops. As above, so below.

“So, after ng flight, didiretso ako for training tapos after training, sisiguraduhin ko lang na meron akong tamang oras na pahinga para sa next duty ko. Parang na-practice ko lang yung time management.”

Christopher Policarpo during training. Handout

Businesswoman Michelle Uy-Bejar, who has been playing underwater hockey since 2006, says the training comes with many challenges. While the competitions divvy up gender, it’s an entirely different ball game for training. The athletes all play together.

“Di ako makahinga, nauubusan ka ng hininga. And you have to play with the boys and you have to make sure that you're strong enough to beat them. You have to be fast. Parang lahat yun sabay-sabay underwater eh. So, medyo mahirap siya tapos di-diskarte ka rin. And syempre, dahil lahat ng tao hindi nagsasalita sa ilalim ng tubig, medyo mahirap din siya. Kailangan nakakabasa ka rin ng play.”

For Alex Colet, who serves as the captain of the Men’s team, the severity of juggling day jobs and training all boils down to focus.

“We don't live in an ideal world. Players have their own work, they have their own families. So, we just do what we can. And we maximize and achieve the goals of the team as much as we can.

“I guess you have to take it one day at a time. After one day at a time, one week at a time. So, you just focus on what you have to accomplish, the training that you have to do on that day, then on the next day and on the next week. That's the focus, that's how you do it.”

The Philippine underwater hockey team in training. Handout

Keeping focus is also top of mind for the athletes. While the game is a non-contact sport, the play gets rough at times.

Architect Khae Naguit says most of the athletes have had their fair share of injuries from both training and competition.

“Kung mapapansin niyo, sobrang dami naming pasa all over kasi minsan nasisipa kami sa mukha, natatadyakan, nasisiko. Minsan yung puck na mabigat nakita niyo? Nafi-flick-an kami sa mukha, sa katawan. So yun yung mga unexpected na though it's a non-contact sport, talagang hindi mo maiiwasan na masaktan.

“Walang underwater hockey player na babaeng maganda ang paa kasi puro kami sugat so lahat samin pwede masabihang maganda but wag niyong titignan yung paa namin.”

Christopher Policarpo during competition and after he sustained an ear injury. Handout

Last November, Policapo had a scare when he ended up in the emergency room after getting hit in the ear during training.

“Naglalaro kami dito on a regular pool session. Tapos apparently, nagkamali ako ng iwas sa isang player. Yung pag iwas ko sa kanya, nasipa ako sa tenga. So, yung pagsipa niya sa tenga ko, bigla na lang naramdaman ko na parang nahihilo ako. Na ang sakit nung tenga ko. Hindi ko pa alam na butas na pala siya that time.”

Doctors told him that he had ruptured his left ear. It would take months of medication and rest for his ear to fully heal. But what hurt more for Policarpo was the possibility that he might not be able to play in Australia where he was invited to compete.

“Na-depress ako kasi akala ko yun na ‘yung end nung career ko as an underwater hockey player and at the same, nalulungkot ako kasi nanghihinayang ako sa pwedeng mangyari. Yung malaking mawawala sakin dahil bihira sa isang Pilipino na makasama sa isang team na maglalaro ka sa ibang bansa.”

In recovery, Policarpo applied the same discipline he had learned from the game. And as luck would have it, his ear healed just in time.

“Awa ng Diyos noong January, nag-fully heal siya which was actually sabi ng mga doctor, medyo miraculous daw. Dahil nung tiningnan yung butas ng tenga sakin, ang sabi sakin ng ear specialist, it would take me around 6 months to 1 year to fully heal.”

“Nagulat ‘yung doctor na hindi niya na nakita na meron akong injury at all. So, for them, it was so miraculous na sabi, talagang pinilit ko raw talagang maglaro. Talagang love ko daw yung sport.”

Christopher Policarpo with his Australian teammates during the Australian Championship. Handout

What’s not a miracle, however, is what the Philippine team has accomplished. They may have sunk in their world debut but in the last few years, it has made waves in the region.

The men’s team was able to take home 4 golds and 3 silvers from the Asian underwater hockey championships. The women’s team delivered 5 golds and won the last two Asian championships.
Women’s team captain Chari Ongyanco says it’s always a moment of pride for them to see the country’s colors fly atop the highest podium.

“Proudest moment? Every time we win gold in Asian championship. Yun talaga. Kasi pinaghihirapan mo yan eh so yun talaga.

“Sobrang saya tsaka maiiyak ka talaga. Maiiyak ka talaga kasi parang syempre parang feeling mo lahat ng pinaghirapan mo nag-pay off so yun.”

The biggest challenge, however, since the team’s inception comes in the upcoming 30th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) where the sport will be introduced for the first time. It’s the biggest stage yet for the athletes to introduce underwater hockey to Filipinos. The added pressure is that the competition will be held in Manila.

“Pinaka-goal ko, well ngayon personally, talaga syempre to win gold in SEA Games. But for the sport, hoping na mas maraming makakakilala nito so mas marami kaming mare-recruit na mga tao na maglaro ng sport na 'to. Kung mas marami kaming mare-recruit, mas marami kaming pagpipilian ng players para mas lumakas yung team,” Onyanco said.

Valdes is confident in the chances of the team taking the gold.
“Nangako ako ng 4 golds. Kailangan i-deliver ko yung 4 golds na yun. Nothing less, yes. And everytime somebody asks me, pangako ko yung 4 golds na yan, lahat ng atletang to, alam nila yung 4 golds na yan has been the goal of everybody.

“Wala silang pagkukulang. Nagte-training yan, gumastos ng sari-sarili, naghanap ng funding, naghanap ng foreign coach, lahat yan ginawa para lang talagang may chance na makuha yung 4 golds na yan.”

Men’s team player Rob Papa has also been with the team since the beginning. In many ways, the long road has led to the SEA Games. But like most of the team, he hopes it doesn’t end there.

“It's going to be overwhelming for one thing kasi it's different if you just play for a club, if you play for yourself but if you have...if you are playing for your country, iba na ‘yun.”

“We never would have thought this small niche unknown sport would get thrown into the national, who have international competition as big as the SEA Games. So, after this, I would hope to see underwater hockey gets included in the Asian Games and hopefully, I'm still able to compete in it, who knows maybe the Olympics?”

The Philippine team training for the next competition. Handout

Policarpo rushes home from the airport. Dashing from the departure gate, weaving past luggage-strewn aisles of the airport as he makes it to the exit.

It had been another long 14-hour flight from New York. But rest isn’t on the agenda. Jet lag be damned.

He grabbed his stick, his snorkel and tinted goggles from the closet. He rushed to the PhilSports complex where his team is waiting.

Another day, another training. Another chance for Policarpo to make the possibility of a gold for his country a little bit more real.

“I am also almost at that age already and I am no longer a young one but I want to show the world as well that even if I'm beyond my prime, should I say, for an athlete, I can still do my best and I can show the entire Underwater Hockey community, the Philippines and everyone else that age doesn't matter for underwater hockey.

“Probably as long as I am able. As long as I am able, as long as there is underwater hockey, I will continue to play.”

When it comes to his work, Policarpo says it’s all about destinations.

But come SEA Games, he says it’s all going to be about destiny.

— With reports from Cara Bilangel and Sheen Claudette Paz