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Play Underwater Hockey

Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page M08

Just because the National Hockey League is on strike doesn't mean you have to suffer through winter puck-less. The Beltway Bottom Feeders, a local underwater hockey team, plays year-round, and even those of us who aren't built like Jaromir Jagr can join in the fun. Never heard of the game? Underwater hockey may sound like an indie sport, but there's actually a U.S. national team (Bottom Feeder David Kennedy is a member) that competes in the World Cup every two years against powerhouses such as New Zealand, Australia and France. In the States, Nationals are held every summer -- the Bottom Feeders hosted the tournament in June 2003.

Learning to play is easy. Like many extreme sports popping up on ESPN 2 (arctic golf? trampoline basketball?), this one takes a classic sporting concept and adds an ultra-challenging twist. Unlike other X games, though, underwater hockey doesn't require you to travel to the ends of the Earth or risk life and limb -- just drop in on a Bottom Feeders practice. Be ready for a grueling workout: Not only will your lungs and legs burn, but all that underwater strategizing means you'll be mentally spent as well. The good news? Once you get better, the sport becomes more about game plan, less about frantic diving. The bad news? Once you get better, the team will stop letting you off easy.

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What to Expect: The sport originated in England in 1954 as "Octopush," a kind of underwater shuffleboard. The U.S. Navy Seals soon adopted it as a training tool to keep lung capacity at peak levels. Clubs sprang up when rescue divers formed teams to keep in shape during the off-season. The game's pace can be summed up in a single word: intense. As with regular hockey, there are three forwards and three backs, and you earn one point each time you shoot the puck into the goal. The challenges: Your stick is only one foot long, and the game is three-dimensional, so you have to worry about players above and below you as well as those in front of and behind you. Pure brawn won't get you as far as you might think: Bottom Feeders organizer David Sun notes that water takes away most of the advantage bigger players have on dry land, as smaller folk tend to be more adept at maneuvering.

What to Bring: A sturdy bathing suit. Serious male players wear Speedos, but trunks are fine for novices. You'll also need a snorkel, fins, a mask and a stick; the club happily loans these items free to beginners.

Cost: Joining the team is free. Practices are $5 per person at George Mason University(free for students) and $7 at Oak Marr Rec Center. Your first try is free at both places. Lauren Silva

Dive In

The Bottom Feeders (dsun_mail@yahoo.com, dc.underwaterhockey.com) welcome newcomers to any weekly practice, but rookies will find the Tuesday beginners class most beneficial:

Sunday: Practice from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at George Mason University Aquatic Center (4400 University Dr., Fairfax).

Tuesday: Class/beginners practice from 9 to 10:15 p.m. at George Mason with the GMU club team.

Thursday: Practice from 9 to 10 p.m. at Oak Marr Rec Center (3200 Jermantown Rd., Oakton).

Got a great outdoors opportunity?

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