Why you should care
Because sports that might kill you are often the ones most worth doing.
There’s always that “because it’s there” element — George Mallory’s famous reply to “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” — to why we do anything crazy. Especially those crazy things that might kill you. [Note: Mallory did die on Mount Everest.] Case in point? Holding your breath long enough in a place where if you take a breath you die. Interested yet?
“When I was an Infantry Marine I needed to do something to get my water confidence up,” says Prime Hall, the 34-year-old founder of the Underwater Torpedo League (UTL). So based on what he had learned in the military and tying into the special ops community at large — think Navy SEALs, Recon Rangers, Green Berets — Hall created something to facilitate greater comfort underwater. But that’s now morphed into a rugby-esque game that uses a 10-inch long, rubberized “torpedo” and has a league spreading beyond its base in Southern California to Nevada and Arizona in 2019. And it will actually make you more confident in the clutch underwater.
“Who couldn’t love something that’s like a cross between underwater MMA and underwater football?” Hall laughs. In a culture Tough Mudder’d and ultra-marathon’d to the gills, everyone? No one? With more than 50 players in his league, ranging in age and including men and women, professional MMA fighters, pro footballers and Olympic swimmers, Hall has also filled his ranks with non-swimmers. That is, people who’ve learned how to swim while getting in shape to play in the UTL.
While no one (including folks playing it) expects to see it jockey for Olympic Games placement any time soon, the UTL is the first sporting event whose primary field of play is at the bottom of a pool, or to league standards, a 14-foot-deep tank. Each contest of three matches, which are five rounds each, features two 12-person teams — five a side in the pool at any one time — trying to get the torpedo into the other team’s goal. You can swim with the torpedo, pass it and hand it off, and if you haven’t handed it off you can be tackled. From in-pool derivations of everything from water polo to greased watermelon (a kids’ pool game where an actual greased watermelon is pushed through a goal underwater), this sport had been working its way to here for a while.
If you don’t win, at least you’ll be in good enough shape to live and breathe another day.
And dovetailing with DEF, or Deep End Fitness, something you’re definitely going to need before you try this, teams are popping up for anyone interested and with at least $225 for an eight-week pass.
“Swimming is one thing,” says former Marine Pete Guy. “But that happens on the water and, realistically speaking, being comfortable under water is a whole different ball of wax.” Which is sort of why it had figured heavily in special forces training to begin with: Turns out people can last longer underwater without breathing if they have something other than imminent death to take their mind off holding their breath.
In the UTL you can surface when you need to breathe, but not with the torpedo, which must stay underwater. If you accidentally surface with the torpedo? Penalty and a turnover — and a driving impetus to plan future trips to the surface that will not interfere with any game’s goal: winning. And while there are substitutes poolside, it’s largely all you.
You diving, swimming, avoiding underwater tackles, grappling, and any and all manner of underwater madness. And if you don’t win, at least you’ll be in good enough shape to live and breathe another day. So while you could check out matches from poolside spectator booths at the San Clemente Aquatic Center where teams from the region go both to train and compete, you could also dig in deeper and give it a try yourself.
“In the cage, yeah, someone is trying to kill you,” says undefeated MMA fighter Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, whose next bow is at Bellator 213. “But controlling your breathing underwater, whether it’s during a game or training by carrying dumbbells across the pool bottom, is a whole other level of fortitude. Plus it’s so quiet and well, it’s just … ” And then a word that lots of participants end up using at some point, believe it or not: “ … fun.”