Swimming 101

Swimming 101

How to watch a swim meet

The following is a brief summary of competitive swimming strokes.

The Racing Course

The length of a long course racing pool is 50 metres. The pool has eight lanes and each lane is 2.5 metres wide. The water temperature must be kept at 26 degrees Celsius.

The Meet

There are normally 13 individual events and three relays for men and women in a swim meet.

Freestyle Events

In the freestyle, the competitor may swim any stroke he or she wishes. The usual stroke used is the front crawl. This stroke is characterized by the alternate overhand motion of the arms. The freestyle is swum over 50, 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1500 metre distances.

Backstroke Events

In the backstroke, the swimmer must stay on his or her back at all times. The stroke is an alternating motion of the arms. At each turn a swimmer must touch the wall with some part of the body.

Swimmers must surface within 15 metres after the start and each turn. Backstroke race distances are 100 and 200 metres.

Breaststroke Events

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 pushed forward from the breast on or under the surface of the water and brought backward in the propulsive stage of the stroke simultaneously.

The kick is a simultaneous thrust of the legs called a frog or breaststroke kick. No flutter or dolphin kicking is allowed. At each turn a swimmer must touch with both hands at the same time. Breaststroke races are distances of 100 and 200 metres.

Butterfly Events

The most physically demanding stroke, the butterfly features the simultaneous overhead stroke of the arms combined with the dolphin kick. The dolphin kick features both legs moving up and down together. No flutter kicking is allowed.
The butterfly was born in the early 1950s due to a loophole in the breaststroke rules and became an Olympic event in Melbourne, Australia in 1965. Butterfly races are swum in 100 and 200 metre distances.

Individual Medley

The individual medley, commonly referred to as the I.M., features all four competitive strokes. In the I.M., a swimmer begins with the butterfly, changes to the backstroke after one-fourth of the race, then the breaststroke for another quarter and finally finishes with the freestyle. The I.M. is swum in 200 and 400 metre distances.

Medley Relay

In the medley relay all four strokes are swum by four different swimmers. No swimmer may swim more than one leg of the relay, which is swum in backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle order. The medley relay is 400 metres -or four by 100 metres.

Starts and Turns

Many races are won or lost in starts and turns. In the start, the swimmer is called to the starting position by the starter who visually checks that all swimmers are still. Then, once the starter is satisfied, the race is started by either a gun or electronic tone.

Quick turns are essential to a good race. In all events the swimmer must touch the wall, but in the freestyle and backstroke the swimmer may somersault as he or she reaches the wall, touching only with the feet. In the other two competitive strokes, the swimmer must touch the wall with both hands before executing the turn.


The sprint races (50 and 100 metres) are an all-out burst of speed from start to finish. The slightest mistake can cost precious hundredths of seconds -and the race.

The 200 metre events require the swimmer to have a sense of pace as well as the ability to swim in a controlled speed.

The 400, 800 and 1500 metre freestyle require the swimmer to constantly be aware of where they are in the water and how tired they are becoming. Swimming the first portion of the race at too fast of a pace can sap a swimmers strength and cause a poor finish. Swimming the first portion of the race too slowly can separate the swimmer from the pack and make catching up impossible.

There are two ways to swim a distance race. Swimmers may elect to swim the race evenly (holding the same pace throughout the race) or they may negative split the race. A negative split occurs when the swimmer covers the second half of a race faster than the first half.