Singapore women on the move in underwater hockey

The national women's team tussling for the puck in training. They finished a respectable 11th out of 13 teams at the Underwater Hockey World Championships last month.
The national women's team tussling for the puck in training. They finished a respectable 11th out of 13 teams at the Underwater Hockey World Championships last month. PHOTO: WILSON ZHANG

Donning masks and swimming fins, they prowl the pool bottom like aquatic predators on the hunt, each wielding a 35cm-long stick in one hand.

Breaking their streamlined postures for air at the surface every few seconds, the difference is that instead of prey, they pursue a bright-coloured puck for two 15-minute halves.

These athletes do battle in the realm of ice hockey's lesser-known cousin - underwater hockey.

Also known as octopush, the sport, which originated in England more than 60 years ago, has made steady strides in Singapore since it was introduced here by expatriates in 2004.

And last month, the national women's team, which was formed in 2007, made their mark on the international scene at the 19th Underwater Hockey World Championship in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Being comparatively less-experienced in the 13-strong field, they endured heavy defeats by powerhouses Australia (17-0) and New Zealand (14-0) in the group stage of the elite women's category.

Yet, coached by Australian underwater hockey star Lena Plambeck, the 11-strong team surprised many with their style of play, which saw them impress with their movement. The coach instructs them via e-mail and the players will update her of their progress by sending her video clips.

Forward Christina Tham, 46, said: "Many expected a first-timer at the world championships to play the usual straight-down-the-pool type of game, but instead the team played wide across the pool."

Only a narrow 1-0 defeat by Germany in the 9th-13th spot play-offs prevented Singapore from finishing in the top 10.

They secured two gutsy victories over a more experienced Argentina team - in the group stage (3-1), and in the play-offs (2-1) - giving them a credible 11th placing on their debut.

Captain and full-back Cheoh Pin, 39, said of the narrow defeat: "It all boiled down to them being slightly fitter and having more experience.

We're happy to be on par with them; just a bit unlucky."

Forward Jovie Lim, 39, led the Republic's scoring with three goals. They were the top-ranked Asian team in the competition, with the Philippines finishing 13th.

It was a creditable display by the team, made up of members of the Stirling Underwater Hockey Club which was established in 2004, as the Philippines started playing the sport as early as in the 1980s.

And they are not resting on their laurels, setting their sights on next year's biennial Asian Underwater Hockey Championships in China.

Singapore, who won the competition in 2011 and 2013, will look to wrestle the Asian crown back from the Philippines, who dethroned them in last year's final 2-1.

The Republic men's team won the Asian title last year but did not compete at the World Championships, as many players had work commitments.

With experience on the world stage now under their belts, captain Cheoh said: "Our youngest player, Sheena Soh, 23, has played for only about eight months. Other countries' players have played since a young age and have easily two times as much experience as us.

"Considering the limited experience we have, I'm pretty satisfied with our performance. We can only get better."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2016, with the headline Singapore women on the move in underwater hockey. Subscribe