Players compete in an underwater hockey game in Chongqing. (Photo provided to China Daily)
Underwater hockey, a sport most Chinese have never heard of, is becoming popular among swimmers and divers in a dozen big cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Players wear diving masks, snorkels and fins, and carry a short stick in one hand for playing the puck in a swimming pool. Two teams of up to 10 players compete, with six players in each team in play at any one time. In club matches, two of the six must be women.
The sport originated in England in 1954 when a group of divers wanted to keep active in the cold winter months. It is now a worldwide sport, mainly played in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.
In China, the sport was originally played by foreign expats and young Chinese who had returned from overseas. Later, more Chinese swimmers started to join in.
There are now two underwater hockey clubs in Chongqing, a metropolis in southwestern China, with the first one formed last year and the second one this year.
A team of players comes together for a pregame huddle. (Photo provided to China Daily)
The newly founded Trigger Underwater Hockey Club has over 200 members, ages 13 to 68, from all walks of life.
Chen Manzhi, 27, started to play underwater hockey in March and is now one of the club's top players.
"I don't like swimming, but I love playing underwater hockey," she said. "I like playing with my teammates."
Swimming coach Yang Chunlin, one of the club's founders, said: "It is easy to learn and it is fun to play. It is more interesting than swimming alone in the pool."
A set of entry-level gear costs less than 1,000 yuan ($150), he said, but most of it had to be bought overseas because the sport is not popular in China.
As the player base has grown, Chinese underwater hockey clubs have established a national organization to regulate and promote the development of the sport. Its president, Lyu Pu, 37, founded the first underwater hockey club in Chongqing. She estimates there are about 800 people in China playing the sport regularly.
In June, her club hosted the fourth Underwater Hockey China Cup tournament in Chongqing's Qijiang district, with 22 teams competing.
"The matches were broadcast live online for the first time, attracting over 800,000 viewers," she said.
Some clubs are now promoting the sport among children and university students.
Wang Kan, the founder of Chongqing Sober Underwater Hockey Youth Team, said children can benefit a lot from the sport.
"It's an interesting team sport in water," he said. "They can get exercise while learning to play with others."