REPRESENTING USA – Former Keys resident to compete in Underwater Rugby World Championships - A group of people posing for the camera - Underwater Rugby World Championships
USA National team: The National Underwater Rugby Team poses before practice as they prepare for the World Championships. Seven of the 15 members going to the international competition hail from the Florida Krakens underwater rugby club team, the only underwater rugby team in Florida. CONTRIBUTED

A former Keys resident is gearing up to compete in the World Championships for underwater rugby in Austria with Team USA.

“I love being in the water. When I found a sport that I can play underwater, I knew I would enjoy it,” says Mike McCallister, who once resided in Marathon. “While it is a team sport, it also requires a high level of individual discipline too.”

On his hour-and-a-half drive home from underwater rugby practice to Fort Pierce, where he lives, McCallister hopped on the phone with Keys Weekly. He plays for the Florida Krakens, an underwater rugby club based in Pompano, Florida. The Krakens began as the Florida Keys Krakens, spring boarding off the popular Florida Keys Underwater Hockey Club in Key Largo. 

A few underwater hockey players who played underwater rugby in Colombia (where they originate from and where the sport is very popular) introduced the sport to the underwater hockey club. This is how McCallister, a regular at underwater hockey practices, started his underwater rugby career. 

He lived in Marathon for two years and played underwater hockey and rugby with the club until he moved away from the Keys in April 2016. He started playing again in April 2018, when those same Colombian players moved and rebranded as the Florida Krakens in Pompano — the only underwater rugby team in Florida.

So, what exactly is underwater rugby? “Basically, it’s like mixing water polo with actual rugby, and playing it underwater while holding your breath,” says McCallister. “Players wear mask, fins, and snorkel. You swim back and forth just like water polo. You have a small ball and you’re trying to score. But, the goals are on the bottom in the deep end/diving well of the pool, usually 12-15 feet deep. Aspects of rugby also remain — grabbing, tackling, and holding. 

“As long as you have the ball, you can grab any player in the water. And if you’re defending, you can hold onto any other person,” McCallister continues. “When you have to breathe, you have to either let go of the ball or swim to the surface with it. But the ball can’t break the surface: that’s out of bounds.”

There are three positions: forward, defender, and goalie. Each play is about 15-20 seconds long, with one set of players underwater while another set is recovering at the surface. 

“We don’t stay down too long, because then it throws the rotation out of sync. The longer you recover at the surface, the longer the person at the bottom has to wait. Instead, we get fresh lungs, fresh people in there,” he says

McCallister and six of his fellow Krakens are preparing to travel to Graz, Austria with the USA National Team for the 11 CMAS Underwater Rugby World Championships from July 27 – August 3. McCallister, who will play defense, made the cut for the 15-person team out of about 52 players who tried out between May 2018 and February 2019. 

The last World Championship was hosted in 2015 in Cali, Colombia, and Team USA finished 9 out of 12 teams. 

“I can’t wait to represent Team USA. I’m super excited to get this opportunity,” says McCallister. “It’s a World Cup — the highest competition for this sport. It’s a mini-Olympics.”

The sport — somewhat unknown in the U.S. — is popular in European countries, as well as in Colombia, Australia, and Canada. There will be 17 different countries putting forth a men’s team at the World Championship in Austria. Still, for Team USA, the relative obscurity of their sport has meant that players take on the financial commitment for all expenses to tryouts, tournaments, team training, and travel to the World Championship. McCallister notes, “Without question the hardest part is the time commitment. It requires an immense amount of sacrifice both in my work and my personal life. The financial commitment has also been significant. Fortunately, my family, friends, and colleagues have been very supportive of me throughout this endeavor.”

Notwithstanding the time and financial obligations, McCallister and his team are eager to represent the country: “Team USA is fairly young, but this is the strongest we’ve ever played since competing in the Worlds. We’ve got the strongest, most cohesive fleet ever, so we feel we can have a good showing…and maybe even make an upset. Either way, it will be a huge honor to wear the letters USA on my uniform, and I can’t wait to hear the National Anthem after we win games. Coming form the Keys and getting to play on the world stage, representing U.S.A., it doesn’t get better than this.”

To help McCallister travel to the World Championships, visit:  bit.ly/MikeMcCallisterUWR. To find out more information about the Florida Krakens and Team U.S.A., visit their Facebook Pages (www.facebook.com/FloridaKeysUWR/ and www.facebook.com/usa.uwrugby/, respectively). And to follow along with Team U.S.A. at the World Championships, check out their livestream youtube channel (www.youtube.com/channel/UCir64tlXKGOU1uAJDTBoDIg) and the Team U.S.A. Instagram (@usa.uwrugby).

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