Competitive Swimming Basics

Swimming is a sport of personal best times and goals

From our Fundamentals pre-competitive program through to nationally/internationally qualified, our swimmers are constantly learning and improving their fitness, technique and racing strategies. This is competitive swimming - your child might have goals to compete with other swimmers in his or her group or other clubs, but the best competition is always the clock. Beating a previous best time is an important goal. There will always be someone faster or someone slower, so the focus should be on self-improvement. Improvement can happen suddenly, but it can also be a gradual climb. Every swimmer progresses at a different pace, which is why the coaches put so much emphasis on personal goals.

Four Competitive Swimming Strokes

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

The following section gives you an overview of the strokes, but if you would like to learn the details, you are encouraged to take a “Strokes and Turns” officials clinic. Not only will you learn the details of the strokes, but you will gain an important certification that our club requires to be able to participate in meets. Click on “For Parents > Officials” for course availability.


In the freestyle events, the competitor may swim any stroke he or she wishes, but this will almost always be the front crawl, as it is the fastest stroke. In competitive swimming, front crawl and freestyle are essentially synonymous. Freestyle is characterized by the alternate stroking of the arms over the surface of the water surface and an alternating (up-and-down) flutter kick. Swimmers must surface within 15 metres after the start and each turn. Freestyle is swum over 50, 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1500 metre distances.


In the backstroke, the swimmer must stay on his or her back at all times. The stroke is an alternating motion of the arms. On turns, swimmers may rotate to the stomach, take a single or double arm pull, and perform a flip turn. The 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 50, 100 and 200 metres.


Breaststroke requires simultaneous movements of the arms and legs 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 whip or breaststroke kick. No flutter or dolphin kicking is allowed except for the first stroke off of each wall. At each turn and the finish, a swimmer must touch with both hands at the same time. After the turn, swimmers may perform one underwater stroke, called a breaststroke pullout. A single dolphin kick is allowed on this first underwater stroke. Breaststroke races distances are 50, 100 and 200 metres.


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. Both hands must touch the wall simultaneously on the turns and the finish. Swimmers must surface within 15 metres after the start and each turn. The last stroke to be developed, butterfly was born in the early 1950s and became an Olympic event in Melbourne, Australia in 1965. Butterfly races are swum in 50, 100 and 200 metre distances.

Individual Medley

The individual medley, commonly referred to as the IM, features all four competitive strokes. In the IM, a swimmer performs a quarter of the race in each stroke in a specified order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. The IM is swum in 200 and 400 metre distances.


Freestyle Relay – 4 swimmers participate - no swimmer may swim more than one leg of the relay. Freestyle relays are swum as 4x50m, 4x100m, and 4x200m.

Medley Relay – all four strokes are swum by four different swimmers. No swimmer may swim more than one leg of the relay. The order of the strokes is backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle. Medley relays are swum as 4x50m or 4x100m.

Starts and Turns

In the start, the swimmers are whistled onto the blocks (or into the water for backstroke) by the referee, and are 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 an electronic tone.

In all events, the swimmer must touch the wall at each end, but in the freestyle and backstroke the swimmer may somersault (flip turn) as he or she reaches the wall, touching only with the feet. In breaststroke and butterfly, the swimmer must touch the wall with both hands simultaneously before executing the turn.