Underwater champ

2014-03-11 00:00

DEREK Fitzgerald has been descending to the bottom of the pool with hockey stick in hand and flippers on his feet for the past four years in the unusual sport of underwater hockey.

“It started with my dad, Gary, who played for the Zimbabwean national team. I used to sit poolside and watch him play, waiting for the opportunity when I was old enough to give it a bash,” said Derek.

In the four years he has been playing the game, Derek has definitely proven he is a chip off the old block, making leaps and bounds in the sport.

His latest accolade was being named captain of the KZN U19 team that played in the junior nationals inter-provincial tournament in Stellenbosch earlier this month.

“We won the A league at the tournament, which means we are the SA U19 champions,” said Derek. “This was the first year the team had played in the A league, the prize for winning the B league last year.”

Derek led from the front, being named player of the tournament as KZN defeated the Gauteng Lions in a gruelling final.

“We played the Lions on the first day of the tournament and lost 1-0. That was our only loss as we progressed to the semi-finals, thanks to finishing second on the log out of six teams,” said Derek.

“In the semi, we beat North West 2-1 and no prizes for guessing who we met in the final — the Lions.”

Determined to prove a point, Derek and his men fought for every advantage.

“At full time, we were locked at 3-3, which took us into overtime, which is two halves of five minutes,” said Derek. “After the first half, we were still at it, the score at 4-4. It came down to the last two seconds where we managed to score the winner and take the honours 5-4. As we surfaced, the buzzer signalled the end of the game.”

Derek plays for the Durban Underwater Club team and in a game where speed and strength are vital attributes, focuses on swimming, spending time in the pool daily after school, at King’s Park or Durban North pools.

“Obviously being underwater, it’s not too spectator friendly but it is a physical sport. The more a person plays it starts falling into place as techniques and breathing get worked out,” said Derek.

“It’s a positional game and to win, it’s vital to work as a team and play your position. It may sound amusing, but it is a fast game and technically non-contact, although hands and wrists take some beating when controlling and contesting the puck.”

In a nutshell, the game is two halves of 10 minutes each, although teams played 15-minute halves in the semis and final in Stellenbosch.

A team has 10 players, with six in the water at one time, with four rolling substitutes. Players wear a mask (goggles), snorkel, fins and a glove. There are two referees, one in and one out of the pool.

“Rules state that players are only allowed to touch the puck and any barging or pushing is illegal. Players can challenge for the puck though by using their stick, which is similar to a small boomerang,” said Derek.

“There is also an underwater speaker, which enables players to hear when the refs want to stop play.”

Substitution is strictly controlled, with players wanting to join the fray having to wait in a designated area in the pool. Only when the player being substituted enters the area, can the replacement join the game.

It sounds a game easier to watch than play, but Derek is on the right track to realising his dream to play at the World Cup, held every two years, the next being in Barcelona next year.

“From the junior nationals, a SA U19 training squad is selected for the Southern Hemisphere friendly tournament in Johannesburg,” said Derek.

“This is a stepping stone toward the World Cup and that is my goal, to make the U19 side for Barcelona next year.”

Considering Derek’s exploits in the sport to date, there should be no cause for anyone to hold their breath in anticipation. He has the pedigree to succeed.

Name: Derek Fitzgerald

Age: 17

School: Northwood

Grade: 12

Sport: Underwater hockey

Achievements: Captain of KZN U19 underwater hockey team; School prefect

Derek Fitzgerald at a Glance

Enjoys sport and plays hockey, rugby, squash, tennis and waterpolo

Watches rugby and is an avid Sharks


Hits the beach with his surfboard when he can

Has played guitar for the past two years and is self taught

No good at cooking

Favourite food is pizza

Likes movies and a good time out with friends

Listens to music — rock, soft rock, local


Persistence is key. Never give up. All the training, sacrifice and scars are worth it in the end.

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