Freedive Earth meets Daniel Naujoks from Hammerheads the New Jersey Underwater rugby Team
During my stay in New York, I had the chance to meet and train with the New Jersey underwater Rugby Team, called Hammerheards. As underwater rugby consists on holding your breath and play the ball underwater in the pool, I figured it will be a good idea to write an article about it. It is really a fun sport and I have to say it is a really good training for freediving, it is like Co2 table*10.
So Daniel, you are the president of the New Jersey Hammerheads underwater rugby club. So what is underwater rugby exactly?
In a nutshell, underwater rugby is one of the most exciting, most complex, and most fun sports that exist. Imagine a 12ft (or 4m)-deep pool, two baskets on the bottom of each side. Two teams, equipped with fins, mask and snorkel, and a salt-water filled ball. We hold our breath when playing at 3, 5, 12 feet below the surface and pass the ball standing on our heads, swimming sideways and swirling around. So unlike water polo the game is always below the water surface. It’s called rugby because we can tackle the person who carries the ball.
So, would you say that it dangerous when you wrestle for the ball some 3-4 meters underwater?
I understand that it may sound dangerous to some people. And I am sometimes asked if people drown. But in the 60 years that the sport has been around no one ever drowned. People don’t even blackout or get a samba. As a matter of fact, I would say that it is a very safe sport. While we can wrestle someone for the ball, there are very few actions with impact. Also, our general strategy is to pass the ball before the opponent is on to you. And unless you have the ball, nobody can touch you. In fact, I feel one of the attractions of underwater rugby is that you get the adrenalin rush of a contact sport without the injuries. I know people who are 50, 60, 70 years of age and older and who still regularly play underwater rugby. For me, this is a great sign for a healthy sport.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the origin of it? Where is it from and where is it played today?
German diving clubs invented the sport some 60 years ago. Thus, it’s much older than many people assume. Scuba divers could not go diving in lakes during winters. To stay fit and to mix up their swim routines, they started experimenting with the first versions of underwater rugby. Today it is played in many countries. While the sport spread to most European countries first, it also took a strong foothold in Colombia and Venezuela, and several teams play in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, China, Canada and the United States. It’s definitely a global spread. But the community is still small enough to give you a real sense of community. If you come to any city in the world with a team you can always just join for a practice.
What was your personal journey to underwater rugby? Are you also a freediver?
I used to do martial arts for many years before I felt that my learning curve was flattening. And I saw that older martial artists had knee problems and shoulder problems and back problems. So I didn't want to end up like this. When I moved to Switzerland for work, a friend introduced me to freediving. I always loved snorkeling and diving down. But the rigorous training and the techniques I quickly learned at Lausanne’s Immersion Profonde, the oldest freediving club in Switzerland, made me fall in love with the sport. I still love to freedive. But personally, I find pool training boring. When I moved back to my hometown Berlin I saw an Underwater Rugby class on the university’s course directory. Frankly, it sounded a little weird to me too but I decided to try it out. From the first 15 min I spent playing rugby, I knew I had found the most amazing sport and a new passion.
What do you like most about underwater rugby?
I could talk for hours. But I’ll try to keep it short.
First, UWR is the only truly three-dimensional sport—apart from Harry Potter’s Quidditch. Come to think of it, in most sports the ball moves in all three dimensions, but the players are normally restricted to a two-dimensional playing field. In underwater rugby, when I face an opponent, I have the option of going under him, over her, to his right or to her left. I can flip around and, while being upside down, I look for my teammates to make a pass.
Second, underwater rugby takes the best from many sports and brings the elements together in a great way. It creates great endurance. It is very fast-paced and very strategic. It doesn't take much to start playing but you also keep learning and improving over your entire life as a player. I’ve been playing for twelve years now and I feel that I’m still getting better every month.
Third, it’s one of the rare sports that is really co-ed. Apart from the World Championships, most teams and tournaments have male and female players who play together.
Fourth, as I mentioned earlier, it is a fun sport that does not come at the cost of your health. I see myself playing in 20 years and its great to have an exciting sport where you don’t have to stop at a certain age.
Lastly, the underwater rugby community is amazing. Through rugby I have friends in two dozen countries and it's a very friendly, inclusive, and communicative group of people.
Do you have to be a freediver to join the practice?
Not really. It helps but it is by no means necessary. We use gear that is similar to that of freedivers and we hold our breath when we play. So being a freediver helps. But I always wonder why not more freedivers play UWR and use UWR as way to cross-train. I’ve seen good swimmers and bad swimmers, martial artists and people who’ve never done any contact sport, soccer players, runners, and many other people who have successfully started playing rugby. In my experience, virtually everyone can learn it. Some may catch it a little quicker, some take a little longer but there’s no basic requirement that I see people should have. Just have an open mind and be ready for some serious fun.
I had the chance to come and train with you guys. I have to say that it was a really interesting experience. When you play underwater rugby, you have really short apneas but really intense dives and many dives with short recovery time. This is very different from my regular training as a freediver, where I am used to long apneas during which I focus on relaxation and technique. Thus, the training with the Hammerheads was really intense for me. You build up CO2 so quickly and get this urge to breathe really quick. It is like a really intense CO2 table for me. Do you have specific dry training on land?
Your observation is spot on. The main difference between freediving and underwater rugby, when it comes to the apnea, is that for playing rugby it’s not that important how long you can stay underwater or how far you can swim. Obviously, to some extent this matters. But often it is more important to go quickly down and to receive the ball, to make a pass, go up, breathe twice and go back down. It’s a fast game and speed matters. Thus, we do much more sprint training, which, by the way, is a great way to build core muscles that you can use for freediving. As rugby players, we’re used to high levels of CO2 and we build better resistance to it than any CO2 table that I’ve tried. Some players, including myself, do both CO2 and O2 tables at home or on the treadmill to improve our breathholding capacities. But what I love about underwater rugby is that it’s not just a table or routine but a game. So you get caught in the dynamics of the match. You see that your team needs you down there and you don’t think about the seconds on the stopwatch but about the intervention that is needed. Using our play instinct to train is just a really efficient way of training and I think that many freedivers could use UWR to cross-train, while underwater rugby players use freediving tables to get better too. The potential for cross-fertilization is huge.
In term of equipment, you use a mask, snorkel and bi-fins. But the equipment is a bit different from what we use in freediving. Can you tell us more about it?
The equipment is indeed quite similar but also a little different. We use low volume masks. But since we don’t dive very deep the low volume itself is not that important. What is more important is good visibility, streamlined shapes, and durability. For this reason, many low volume masks are good rugby masks. But masks that are too flimsy or limit your vision are not ideal. As to fins, freediving fins are too slow, and they give you too little acceleration and agility. Thus, we use shorter and often stiffer fins. Of course there’s a broad variety and people who start normally use regular closed-heel snorkeling fins. But most players who play more intensely use fiberglass or rubber fins. The great thing about these fins is that they fit into every suitcase and bag. This is something that cannot be said about most freediving fins. So when I go for a weekend trip to freedive in Mexico or Puerto Rico, I generally take my underwater rugby fins.
I believe that your team, the New Jersey Hammerheads, is very successfully playing in the North-American Underwater Rugby League and you recently came back from a tournament in Toronto. Can you tell us about your club’s experience with competitions?
We have a great underwater rugby community in Northern America. We play a league with clubs in the US and in Canada that is growing each year. We just finished the season with the tournament in Toronto last month. This year, our team lost the finals, coming in a strong second of the league. This past season, we had many new players joining our team and we’re building a great foundation for the next seasons. We’re also very proud that we’re the only club that has ever represented the United States at the prestigious Champions’ Cub in Berlin, where only the national champion of each country is admitted. We first played the tournament in 2014 and then again in 2015. Last year, many of our players were also part of the US national team that took part in the World Championship in Cali, Colombia in the summer of 2015, which was an amazing experience for us and we learned a lot at this high-level competition.
What would you say is special about the NJ Hammerheads and the way you train?
As a team, we are fortunate to have our head coach, Jose Echeverry, and our technical coach, Giancarlo Castro. Thanks to our coaches, we focus on individual skills, as well as many strategic moves as a team. Last year, a competitive finswimmer, Juan Pablo Riomana, joined the Hammerheads and we’ve all progressed much in terms of our swimming technique and speed. While many teams spend most of their water time playing we actually do a lot of drills and we experiment with new moves and rotations. This way we all develop and keep innovating the sport. It’s actually pretty cool what you can do to orchestrate a team that moves in three dimensions. And of course, we’re special because we’re a particularly friendly bunch of people who include native Newarkers, as well as immigrants from Colombia, Portugal, Turkey, Iran, UK, and Germany. So I guess, we’re pretty international.
What is your objective for this coming season?
In three weeks, we’ll start the new season in our home pool in Newark. By the way, the NJ Hammerheads are very grateful to the City of Newark and the Newark Department of Recreation who provide us excellent training conditions and encouragement. We’re proud to represent Newark nationally and internationally and to count on the support of the community. This is a great asset for us.
Given the growth our team, we'll probably start the next season with two teams. While we want to keep winning tournaments, we’re also continuing to build our player base. Thus, we often give newer players a chance to play in a tournament so they can get valuable experience. We’ve had a lot of new players this year and our main goal is to keep growing, while remaining competitive. We also want to attend an international tournament in Florence, Italy next year. Life at the Hammerheads is never boring—I promise!
Thanks for the interview, Daniel.