Development of UW-Rugby

by Rudi Wiesner

UW Rugby is a very young sport, and one would think that at least the participants would know how it started. Wrong. All kinds of wild "origin stories" have started to circulate in the last years, from conditioning training of French Navy Units to a game played with coconuts in distant Kenya. So where does it come from?

It was a member of the German Underwater Club, Cologne by the name of Ludwig von Bersuda, who in 1961 came up with the idea of a ball game underwater. Whether he got the idea from conditioning exercises with sand-filled bottles in the Munich Underwater Club, or some other thoughts played a role, will never be known. An air-filled ball is not suitable for underwater games, since they are bouyant and always return to the surface. For this reason, Bersuda filled the ball with salt-water. Since the density of the ball was now greater than that of normal water, it no longer floated to the surface, but slowly sank to the bottom. The sink rate could, within certain limits, be controlled by the concentration of the salt solution. The first underwater ball was invented. Since soccer-balls were too large to be practical, water-polo balls were used.

Then came the question, what kind of game could you play with this ball? Here too, Ludwig von Bersuda had an idea. He spanned the middle of the pool with a net, like volleyboll, that stopped 1 m above the pool bottom. Two teams played against each other: the offensive team had to carry the ball to the opposing field and put it into a bucket. The idea for the game was ready, and the DUC Cologne used it to warm-up before normal training. Other teams saw this and started to use salt-water filled balls themselves.

After years-long efforts by the DUC Cologne, the "Cologne Discipline" was demonstrated as a competition sport at the national games in 1963. This was probably the first official game with a ball under water. At the time, though, there was no interest.

Only one member of DUC Duisburg, a dentist by the name of Dr. Franz Josef Grimmeisen, took it upon himself to make a competitive sport from this ball game. His enthusiasm was not, however shared by the club.

The DLRG Mülheim had founded a diver's club, and through contact with members of DUC Duisburg learned of the underwater ball game that would in future become known as "Underwater Rugby". They were more open to the idea. With the help of DLRG Mülheim (since 1967 TSC Mülheim/ Ruhr), Dr. Grimmeisen arranged the first Underwater Rugby game on Sunday October 4, 1964. It took place between DLRG Mülheim and DUC Duisburg. DLRG lost the game 5:2. The media took notice of this "premiere" and in the next edition of the "Essener Tageblatt" there was a half page report with two photos.

Dr. Grimmeisen kept promoting the ideas of an Underwater Rugby Tournament to give the sport a character of serious competition. He, together with the scuba-diving section of the DUC Mülheim/Ruhr, to which six players of DUC Duisburg came, organized the first Underwater Ruby Tournament rules, and the "Battle for the Golden Ball" in Hallenbad Süd, in Mülheim/Ruhr. The premiere was on November 5, 1965. Six clubs sent teams to Mülheim: DUC Bochum; DUC Düsseldorf, DUC Duisburg, DUC Essen and TSC Delphin Lüdenscheid. These were the first clubs gripped by UWR-fever! The rules of those days allowed 8-player teams, and DLRG Mülheim, the home-team, came away winners, against DUC Duisburg (with whom Dr. Grimmeisen played).

The tournament has been held every year since then, which makes it the oldest tournament in the history of the sport. The Cologne version of the game didn't make the breakthrough, and was only played for a short time thereafter in Cologne, and has been long since forgotten. The Cologne team itself also turned to Underwater Rugby.

To bring this game to the international arena, Dr. Grimmeisen turned to the two then most important members of the CMAS, France and the USSR. He offered demonstration games and press coverage. Sadly, intrest was not forthcoming. Just one French sport magazine "L'Equipe" printed a short article in the April 9, 1965 edition.

The Scandinavian countries showed more interest, and adopted the ideas in relatively short time. A demonstration in Denmark in 1973 and in Finland in 1975 were effective. Games in Belgium in Sept. 1973 and Vienna in 1979 were ineffective in generating interest. In the Eastern Block, only teams of the Czeck Republic were interested, and they, according to the politics of the time, played only against communist teams. The only tournament that was known there was the Underwater Rugby Tournament in Prague, which has take place every year since 1975 (with the exception of 1979). In later years, Polish teams participated as well, and teams from East Germany, who used the game for conditioning, sent observers. Since 1972, when the game was recognized as a sport by the VDST, official German Championships have taken place (in 1971, the first inofficial German Championships took place). The first German Championship was fought in Mülheim, of course, and the first German Champions were TSC Mülheim. In 1978, Underwater Rugby and Underwater Hockey were officially recognized by the CMAS, and from 28-30 April, 1978, the first European Championships took place in Malmö/Sweden, and from 15-18 May 1980, the first World Championships in Mülheim.

That UW-Rugby is popular in Germany, is due to the interest of students. On 10-11 May, 1986 in Mainz and 23-24 May in Göttingen, the first Collegiate Championships were held. This lead the "Aachener Sportspiegel" to release a full page article on the sport.