On Friday evenings at the Riverdale Collegiate Institute’s pool, the water may look empty — but a practice is in full swing just beneath the surface. That’s because at 8:00 pm sharp the Toronto Underwater Rugby Club (TURC) gathers to tough it out underwater for a strange and wonderful iteration of an otherwise straightforward sport. Practicing alongside is U of T Varsity swimmer Hannah Hermanson, who teamed up with Toronto Varsity Blues alum Melanie McDonald to join Team Canada at the Underwater Rugby World Championships in July and August of 2019 in Austria.
“I was initially shocked at the opportunity, but knew I couldn’t pass it up,” said Hermanson. As a Varsity swimmer, she realized that many transferable skills from her main sport could be useful for underwater rugby, including breath-holding and kicking underwater. Once she met the coach and some players at the next practice, she knew she was hooked.
“I was immediately intrigued by the uniqueness of the sport, and the opportunity to be a part of the first women’s team to compete internationally,” she continued.
Underwater rugby isn’t just playing the same rugby underwater, however. The game is played on the floor of a swimming pool. Players throw a ball filled with saltwater that is susceptible to sinking, and there aren’t scrums like regular rugby: teams start at opposite ends of the pool, and dash to the centre to get possession. Points are scored by tossing the ball into the opponent’s basket. However, there is still tackling allowed, but it’s only legal to do so to a player in possession of the ball. As the Toronto club is an inclusive, co-ed space, it can get pretty intense under the surface, but the water softens the blows to make the sport relatively low-impact.
Hermanson quickly fell in love with the unorthodox sport and soon found herself in Austria for the World Championship. “Trust and friendships grew within a very short period of time, making the whole experience all the more memorable,” she recalled.
“After games, the team would meet at the hotel and watch game footage for future improvement and receive feedback from each other… Walking along the cobblestone streets and eating schnitzel, or exploring the hidden secrets of the city while not competing, completed the surreal experience,” said Hermanson. The team found themselves in 13th place at the end of Canada’s first-ever appearance at the competition, and each teammate from across Canada brought home lifelong memories.
For those interested in a break from traditional sport, Hermanson said that “if you love being in the water but also the intensity of land sports, underwater rugby is perfect for you.” The TURC holds regular practices that they announce on their Meetup page for anyone interested; who knows, you may end up on the national team!