Competitive Swimming 101
The Four Strokes (adapted from

The four competitive swimming strokes are freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly. The combination of all four strokes in a single event is called the individual medley.

Freestyle: In freestyle events, the competitor may swim any stroke. The stroke most commonly used is sometimes called the crawl, which is characterized by the alternate stroking of the arms over the surface of the water surface and an alternating (up-and-down) flutter kick.

Backstroke: Backstroke consists of an alternating motion of the arms with a flutter kick, while on the back. The
swimmer must stay on the back at all times, except for turns. On turns, swimmers may rotate to the stomach and perform a flip turn and some part of the swimmer must touch the wall. The swimmer must finish on the back.

Breaststroke: Perhaps one of the most difficult strokes to master, the breaststroke requires simultaneous
movements of the arms on the same horizontal plane. The hands are pressed out from in front of the breast in a
heart shaped pattern and recovered under or on the surface of the water. The kick is a simultaneous somewhat
circular motion similar to the action of a frog. On turns and at the finish, the swimmer must touch the wall with both hands simultaneously at, above or below the water surface.

Butterfly: The most physically demanding stroke, the butterfly features the simultaneous overhead stroke of the
arms combined with an undulating dolphin kick. In the kick, the swimmer must keep both legs together and may not flutter, scissors or use the breaststroke kick. Both hands must touch the wall simultaneously on the turns and the finish.

Individual Medley: The individual medley, commonly referred to as the “I.M.”, features all four strokes. In the IM,
the swimmer begins with the butterfly, then changes after one-fourth of the race to backstroke, then breaststroke
and finally freestyle.


The following events are swum at each age-group level. The selection of individual events differs at every meet
however. Typically, swimmers may compete in a maximum of four events per day, at any competition.

8 and under  

Freestyle: 25, 50, 100
Backstroke: 25, 50
Breaststroke: 25, 50
Butterfly: 25, 50
IM: 100


Freestyle: 50, 100, 200, 500
Backstroke: 50, 100
Breaststroke: 50, 100
Butterfly: 50, 100
IM: 100, 200


Freestyle: 50, 100, 200,
500, 1000, 1650
Backstroke: 50, 100, 200
Breaststroke: 50, 100, 200
Butterfly: 50, 100, 200
IM: 100, 200, 400


Freestyle: 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 1650
Backstroke: 50, 100, 200
Breaststroke: 50, 100, 200
Butterfly: 50, 100, 200
IM: 100, 200, 400


Competition pools may be short course (25 yards), or long course (50 meters). The international standard, as used in the Olympics, is 50 meters.
Most competitions in the fall and winter take place in short course pools (September through April, typically referred to as “Short Course Season”) and most competitions in the spring and summer take place in long course pools (“Long Course Season”).


The technical rules of swimming are designed to provide fair and equitable conditions of competition and to
promote uniformity in the sport. Each swimming stroke has specific rules designed to ensure that no swimmer gets an unfair competitive advantage over another swimmer.
Trained officials observe the swimmers during each event to ensure compliance with these technical rules. If a
swimmer commits an infraction of the rules that is observed by an official, a disqualification (DQ) will result. This
means that the swimmer will not receive an official time and will not be eligible for an award in that event. A
disqualification may result from actions such as not getting to the starting blocks on time, false starting, performing strokes in an illegal manner, or unsportsmanlike conduct.

DQs are also a result of technical rules violations. They include but are not limited to:

  • Freestyle: Walking on the bottom, pulling on the lane rope, not touching the wall on a turn, or not completing the full distance of the race.
  • Backstroke: Pulling or kicking into the wall once a swimmer has turned passed the vertical onto the breast at the turn (turning over too early). Turning onto the breast before touching the wall with the hand at the finish of the race.
  • Breaststroke: An illegal kick such as flutter (freestyle), dolphin (butterfly), or scissors (side stroke); not on the breast; alternating movements of the arms; taking two arm strokes or two leg kicks while the head is under water; touching with only one hand at the turns or finish.
  • Butterfly: Alternating movements of the arms or legs; pushing the arms forward under instead of over the water surface (underwater recovery); a breaststroke style of kick; touching with only one hand at the turns or finish.

If your child is disqualified in an event, be supportive rather than critical. For beginning swimmers, a disqualification should be treated as a learning experience, not as a punishment. A disqualification alerts the swimmer and coach to what portions of the swimmer's stroke need to be corrected. They should be considered in the same light as an incorrect answer in schoolwork-they point out areas that need further practice.

Disqualifications are necessary to keep the competition fair and equitable for all competitors. A supportive attitude on the part of the official, coach, and parent can make a positive situation out of the disqualification.

To learn more about the technical rules and violations consider becoming trained and qualified as an official, its a great way to learn more about the many aspects of competitive swimming, supporting both your swimmer and the team!