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Playing rugby 4.5 metres underwater

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Playing underwater rugby is tough, and running the first Asian underwater rugby club is no easier.

Imagine having to hold your breath while wrestling for a slippery ball as the pressure from being 4.5 metres underwater compresses your eardrums. Even for a seasoned track athlete like myself, underwater rugby is physically demanding.

It is an intense sport that requires technique from rugby, diving and water polo. Players dive to the bottom of the pool (usually at least 3 metres deep) to score in a basket on their opponent's side.

When the First Asian Team Underwater Rugby (FATUWR) club invited Youth.SG to join them at one of their training sessions, I found out firsthand that even passing the ball is a difficult skill to master as it tends to spiral wildly out of control.

But when you get the basics down, the sport is incredibly fun and fulfilling.

Unlike other sports, underwater rugby players have to contend with opponents from all directions - including above and below.

Club founder Chia How Khee, 33, grew the club from a five-man interest group to a burgeoning club of around sixty players. The maritime industry professional first tried the sport when he was an undergraduate studying naval architecture in Sydney.

"I've always wanted to try something different. Underwater rugby was perfect for me," said How Khee, who prefers to be called Khee.

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Khee always had an affinity for watersports. He previously tried free diving and kayaking. 
PHOTO CREDIT: FATUWR CLUB

It was a sport that stuck with him. After completing his studies in Australia, Khee returned to Singapore and founded the only underwater rugby team in Asia on Sep 11, 2014.

"It was a really, really small club – it was basically myself and five other people who already knew the sport. I had to ask friends to try this weird new sport," he recalls.

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Players wait for a pass as their teammate with the ball is pressured by a defender. 
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/DEXTER LIN

An amiable and cheery person who is always smiling (sometimes even underwater), Khee managed to spread word of the obscure sport.

As interest grew, the sport began to attract players from different walks of life, from students to entrepreneurs, and soon the local papers ran a full-page spread about the sport.

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"FATUWR aims to be inclusive regardless of gender, race and religion," Khee proudly said. His team has as many female players as male. 
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/AZRA

Today, after extensive promotion and exposure, FATUWR has become a community with over 60 members, and over 500 people have tried underwater rugby in Singapore.

But being the only club in this region comes with its own set of challenges.

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"The kinship forged in this sports club is irreplaceable. In fact, for many of us, this is family," said Khee (standing on the left).
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/AZRA

The lack of other clubs regionally means the team has to travel long distances to participate in competitions or training camps, like the upcoming 2019 Underwater Rugby World Championship in Graz, Austria.

There is also the challenge of finding training venues.

"Many swimming pools are wary to host us as we play a sport that has a free diving element. They think that the sport is very dangerous and will ultimately result in cases of people drowning," Khee laments. 

FATUWR has not seen any serious accidents, and Khee says the most common injuries are "bumps and bruises from swimming into the pool walls".

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"We want longevity in this club and sport in Singapore and the region," said Khee, who aims to create a bustling local community for the sport by raising awareness about the unorthodox sport. 
PHOTO CREDIT: FATUWR CLUB

Despite these challenges, FATUWR has gathered some accolades over the years. In the 2015 Pan Pacific Cup, the two teams it sent placed third and sixth (out of eight).

With such immense growth locally in a span of four short years, and under the direction of a passionate athlete like Khee, don't be surprised if you find yourself strapping fins and wrestling for a ball at the bottom of a 4-metre-deep pool one day.

BANNER/TEASER PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/DEXTER