Swimming Disqualification Rules

Swimming Disqualification Rules

During indoor swimming races, there are a number of rules in place to ensure that competition remains fair. These rules include the gear that is worn, the swimmer’s release off the starting block, and violations of the stroke when swimming in the pool. Violation of any of these rules may result in a DQ, or disqualification from the race.

Swimwear Disqualifications

Swimwear should only include a swimsuit, goggles, and a swim cap. Two caps may be worn to decrease drag in the water, but no more than that. Any additional gear will result in a disqualification.

Any swimwear that does not comply with the WA (World Aquatics) swimsuit specifications is prohibited from any USA Swimming-sanctioned or approved competition.

In USA Swimming competitions for swimmers aged 12 or under, technical racing suits are not allowed. “Technical” suits are usually considered full-body swimsuits with taped seams and are defined in the rulebook as any suit with bonded seams or woven fabric extending past the hips.

Starting Block Disqualifications

Starts in freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke, and individual medley must be done by diving. Once the starter’s command of “take your marks” is made, a starting position must be taken by the swimmer with at least one foot at the front of the starting block.

Starts in backstroke and medley relay must be in the water. Swimmers may not grip their toes over the edge of the gutter or touchpad.

Any intentional movement made between the “take your marks” and starting signal will result in a false start. In a relay, the same false start rule applies to the first swimmer. Other swimmers may false start if they fully release off the starting platform before their preceding teammate touches the wall.

Swimming Stroke Disqualifications

When swimming freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly, swimmers must break the surface of the water at some point before the 15-meter mark between each wall after the start and each turn. This is to prevent the swimmer from staying underwater and dolphin kicking over the entire lap, which can be even faster than swimming the stroke.

Lane Violations

Swimmers may not pull on the lane rope or push off the bottom of the pool to boost them at any point in the race. Touching the bottom of the pool may be allowed when swimming freestyle, but there should be no intention to walk.

Obstructing another swimmer by crossing into their lane or reaching over their lane to interfere will result in a DQ for the offender. If the interference is deemed intentional, the referee must report it to both the offender and the organizer of the race.

Backstroke Violations

When swimming backstroke, up to one front stroke may be taken before turning at the wall. Also, rotation of the body when executing the backstroke may not exceed more than 90 degrees. In simpler terms, a backstroker’s shoulder should never rotate farther than the middle of their body. Going over any of these limits will result in a DQ.

Breaststroke Violations

When swimming breaststroke, the arm stroke and leg stroke must be done in a consistent motion throughout the race. Taking two strokes before a kick or vice versa is not allowed. Breaststroke is also the only stroke that does not allow the swimmer to take multiple dolphin kicks following the start and each turn. Up to one dolphin kick is allowed before the swimmer begins to break out of their streamline off the turn.

There are several other violations that could disqualify a person swimming breaststroke. Elbows must never go above the surface of the water unless the swimmer is turning or finishing at the wall. Hands may not be brought back beyond the hip line outside of the initial breakout stroke after starting or turning off each wall. Also, the swimmer’s head must emerge out of the water during the cycle of each stroke.

Butterfly Violations

When swimming butterfly, only dolphin kicks are allowed. Up-and-down kicks of the legs must be done together and at the same time. Similarly, both arms must be brought forward at the same time too. Alternating the movement of either arms or legs will result in a DQ.

In both butterfly and breaststroke, swimmers must touch the wall with both hands on both their turns and finish. This can be done above or below the surface.

Medley Violations

In the individual medley (IM), the swimmer must swim all strokes in the following order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle. For the medley relay, the order is a bit different. Each swimmer is only allowed a single stroke, with the order being: backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle.

Outdoor Competition Disqualifications

Outdoor open-water swimming competition follows a different rule system, where infractions can result in yellow or red flags for the swimmer. Two yellow flag infractions is equivalent to a red flag, which is a DQ.

Yellow Flag Infractions

Yellow flag infractions may involve receiving aid through pacing from a swimmer not competing in the race, slipstreaming behind an escort or support vehicle, intentionally making contact with another swimmer to influence their progress, and using a support vehicle to block or interfere with another swimmer.

Red Flag Infractions

Red flag infractions in open water swimming mostly involve a swimmer exploiting outside factors to their advantage. These include pulling on the cables for leverage, receiving propulsive or floatation aid from the support crew, or pushing off the bottom of the pool/against objects. Violation of standard swimwear rules is also a red flag infraction.

Swimmers who fail to finish a part of the course within the time limit may also be issued a red flag. However, the referee may choose to instruct the swimmer to either leave the water or still let them finish the race without any points or prizes awarded.

Acts by swimmers deemed unsportsmanlike by referees will be a red flag infraction, and any yellow flag infraction that the referee considers significant or deliberate enough may also be upgraded to a red flag.


Why can swimmers be disqualified?

In swimming, rules are in play to ensure fair competition between swimmers. If a swimmer violates the rules on the gear that is worn, the release from the starting block, or the stroke that they are swimming, they are disqualified, and the final result of their race will yield no points or prizes from the competition.

How do swimmers know if they are disqualified?

In indoor pool races, disqualifications are usually recorded after the swimmer finishes the race, where a DQ is shown on the scoreboard as an indication. Referees and designated officials must make every reasonable effort to seek out the swimmer or their coach and inform them about the reason for the disqualification. In open water races, the referee may blow a whistle to get the swimmer’s attention and show them a yellow or red flag for their infraction. If the flag is red, the swimmer must leave the water immediately.