What is Swimming?


Swimming is a popular sport both for recreation and competition. There are four strokes (backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle) which are raced at various lengths. There are also three 4-person relays and an event called the individual medley, which combines all four strokes that are raced. The objective is to be the first person to touch the wall in a race, as well as achieve personal best times in each event.

Types of Races

Races are performed in some combination of one of four strokes: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. Of these, breaststroke is the earliest to have been practiced. Swimming a certain number of laps of each of the four strokes is known as an individual medley (IM). Modern-day races range from 50 to 1500 meters in distance. Freestyle is raced at distances of 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1,500 meters, and the other three strokes are only raced at distances of 100 and 200 meters. IM is raced at distances of 200 and 400 meters. There are also three relay events, where groups of four swimmers complete a given distance one after the other: there are 4 x 100 and 4 x 200-meter freestyle relays and a 4 x 100 medley relay.


swimming history

Swimming has been practiced as early as 2500 BCE in ancient Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and Rome. There is evidence of swimming races taking place in Japan as early as the 1st century BCE with organized swimming events being held in Japan during the 19th century. In other ancient civilizations, such as ancient Greece and ancient Rome, athletes and soldiers used swimming as part of their training.

Swimming began to grow in popularity both for recreation and as a sport in the 19th century, with the first swimming organization forming in London in 1837 and the governing body for swimming in Great Britain forming in 1869. From 1882 through 1889, several countries throughout Europe founded national governing bodies for swimming. In the United States, swimming was originally organized as a sport nationally by the Amateur Athletic Union when it was founded in 1888. The Fédération Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA), the international governing body for all amateur aquatic sports, was founded in 1909.

Playing Surface

Swimming Pool

FINA, swimming's governing body, has a set of guidelines and requirements in order for pools to be acceptable to use for competitions. Within competitive swimming there are two regulation pool sizes: short course pools (25m in length) and long course pools (50m in length). In the United States, some pools are 25 yards, rather than 25 meters, and are accepted by USA Swimming, however international records accepted by FINA can only be swum in long course, 50m pools.

The FINA required pools dimensions:

  • Short course meter pools must be 25m long and at least 18.29m wide
  • Long course/Olympic-sized pools must be 50m long and 25 m wide. There must be 8-10 lanes that are 2.5m wide and the pool must be at least 2m deep.

All pools are divided into lanes using lane lines and have backstroke flags at both ends of the pool, typically 5m away from the end of the pool to alert backstrokers that are approaching the wall. Each lane has a starting block at one end of the pool where the swimming race begins.


swimming equipment list

Swimming is not the most equipment intensive sport, but there are still important pieces you will need. They include:

Swimming caps: They help reduce drag from hair. There are two types of swimming cap materials: silicone and latex.

Training suit: Women wear singlets while men can wear speedos or jammers.

Tech suit: These suits are typically used for more important competitions and cover more area on the body. They are usually very tight with high compression.

Fins: Both long and short for different types of swimming.

Additional Equipment includes:

  • Pull buoy
  • Swim snorkel
  • Swimming goggles
  • Paddles
  • Kick-board
  • Ear plugs
  • Nose clips

Strokes and Events

Swimming Events

There are four strokes used in swimming: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle. During swimming competitions, swimmers compete in different events at differing distances.

  • Freestyle is the stroke with the most amount of distances available in a competition. Freestyle is raced at the 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, and 1500m distances.
  • Backstroke is raced at the 100m and 200m distances
  • Breaststroke is raced at the 100m and 200m distances
  • Butterfly is raced at the 100m and 200m distances

Along with the races of individual strokes, swimming also has an event known as the individual medley where swimmers use all four strokes in the order of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and finally freestyle, within the event.

Individual medleys are raced at the 200m and 400m distance. In the 200m IM, swimmers complete 50m of each stroke while in the 400m IM swimmers complete 100m of each stroke.

Although swimming is a very individual sport, there are also relay events where teams of 4 swimmers race, entering the water one at a time once the swimmer before them touches the wall. There are two relay styles, freestyle where every swimmer uses the freestyle, and the medley relay where each of the four swimmers uses a different stroke. The order for the medley relay is backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle. Backstroke is first during the medley relay because swimmers must start in the water for backstroke races while the other strokes require swimmers to dive in head first off of a diving block.

Freestyle relays are raced at the 4x100m and 4x200m distances

Medley relays are raced at the 4x100m distance

Rules and Regulations

swimming rules and regulations

Each race must begin with a start. A head first dive is used for all freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly, and individual medley events, while the backstroke and medley relay events begin in the water. For starts on the block, swimmers will step on to the blocks after one long whistle from the referee. On the command "take your mark," swimmers will get into a crouched position with one foot in front of the other. When each swimmer is set, there will be a signal to start the race. At the signal, usually a loud beep or whistle, the swimmers dive into the pool and begin the competition.

For backstroke, the swimmers will jump into the water and grab the handles on the front of the starting block upon the long whistle rather than stepping on top of the block. The swimmers will get into their start position on the command "take your mark," pushing off of the wall to begin the race at the sound of the starting signal.

If a swimmer performs their start into the water before the starting signal sounds, they are immediately disqualified from the race. During relays, the lead off swimmer will do a traditional start into the water and each of the three following swimmers are not allowed to enter the water until their teammate has touched the wall. Swimmers are at no point allowed to touch or push off the bottom of the pool and will be disqualified for doing so. The swimmer's head must come above the surface of the water no more than 15m into the race.

Some other rules pertaining to the individual strokes are:

Breaststroke: During a breaststroke swim, the swimmer is not allowed to swim on their back or use any sort of up and down kicking or arm motion. At every turn and the finish of the race the swimmer must touch the wall with both hands.

Butterfly: During a butterfly swim, the swimmer must move both arms at the same time and may not separate their legs. For this stroke, they must also touch the wall with both hands at every turn and at the end of the race.

Backstroke: During a backstroke swim, the swimmer must remain on their back the entire time, with the exception of one stroke on their stomach within the flags to execute a flip turn.

Referees and Officials

swimming referees and officials

While swimming isn't a sport typically associated with referees and officials, there are actually seven types of officials present during a swim meet.

Referee: In swimming, the referee has total control during the meet. They enforce the rules, settle disputes between coaches and other officials, and call swimmers to the blocks at the beginning of each race.

Starter: The starter is the official who operates the starting sound and initiates each race. They are also responsible for determining if a swimmer that jumps in before the starting sound will be disqualified for a false start.

Clerk of Course: The clerk is also referred to as the bullpen. They are responsible for organizing the swimmers before their event based upon their heat times.

Timekeepers: Timekeepers record the time of each swimmer in their lane and there are typically two assigned to each lane. They each have a stopwatch inorder to record a swimmer's split times and final time.

Inspector of Turns: This official watches the swimmers at the start, turns, and finish during the race to ensure that the swimmers are turning properly and completely. There are two inspectors of turns: one at the front end of the pool and one at the back end of the pool.

Judges of Stroke: These judges are responsible for ensuring that swimmers are using proper technique during the race and may sometimes help the inspector of turns.

Finish Judges: These judges identify the order in which swimmers finish the race and that they finish the race correctly.

Lingo and Terminology

swimming lingo and terminology

Short-course: Refers to the part of the swimming season where races take place in 25m pools rather than olympic-sized 50m pools. 25m pools are usually found in public and college recreation centers and high schools.

Long-course: Refers to the part of the swimming season where races take place in olympic-sized 50m pools. 50m pools are usually found in colleges with swimming programs and higher end swimming facilities.

Personal Best: The best time that a swimmer has in a particular event. It is their own personal record and a time they strive to lower each time they race.

Even Splitting: Completing each 'split,' typically measured in 50m increments of a race, around the same time.

Negative Splitting: Completing the back half of a race or set faster than the first half.

Set: A grouping of drills or distances used in training. (5x200m freestyle is a set that totals 1000m)


swimming coaching

In order to become a swim coach in the United States, the coach has to be a member of USA Swimming and must have completed safety training, pass a criminal background check, and fulfill other coaches' education as required by USA Swimming. A CPR/AED certification for both adults and children is also required to become a USA Swimming member coach.

Skills and Techniques

swimming skills and techniques

There are five basic skills you'll need in order to begin swimming either recreationally or competitively:

  • Kicking: There are a few types of kicks depending on which stroke is being used. Kicking is also a skill used in treading water.
  • Strokes: Each stroke uses different body positioning, breathing techniques, arm movements, and even kicks.
  • Water comfort
  • Breath control
  • Floating


Swimming Strategy

While the goal of swimming is to be the first person to touch the wall, there are three race strategies that some swimmers will use.

"Fly and Die" is a strategy used in shorter, sprinting events

"Sally/Sammy Save-Up" is used to pace for longer events, building up to a sprint in the final split of the race

"The Even Splitter" is used to hold the same pace per fifty, splitting every fifty


Swimming Drills

In swimming, athletes often strive not only to win races but also get faster and better times with each race, setting personal bests. Most swimmers train using a technique called interval training. Interval training is a series of swims of the same distance with a controlled rest period. Slow interval training is used to develop endurance while fast interval training is used to improve speed.

Olympic Swimming

olympic swimming

Swimming has been included in the Olympic program since the inception of the modern Olympic Games in 1896. Women's swimming events would be added in 1912. Some of the most dominant countries in olympic swimming include Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Japan, and the United States.

Swimming Brands

Swimming Brands

Some of the most popular brands among swimmers are:

  • Nike
  • Speedo
  • Finis
  • TYR
  • Arena

Many swim brands, such as Speedo and TYR, also sponsor individual athletes and use them to market their products.

Swimming Youth Organizations

swimming youth organizations

Swimming has become a popular sport in the United States. There are various types of teams at varying levels that an aspiring swimmer can join. There are YMCA teams, Park District teams, club teams, high school teams. There are currently more than 2800 clubs in the United States registered with USA Swimming.

Swimming Coaches

Swimming Coaches

Here are some well known swimming coaches:

Bob Bowman: Coached Michael Phelps at the Baltimore Athletic Club. He is now the head coach of the Arizona State University Sun Devils swimming and diving program.

David Marsh: Head coach of Team Elite Aquatics, the top pro swimming training group in the US based in San Diego, California. Served as the Head US Olympic Women's Swim Coach in Rio, leading them to the most medals in USA Swimming's history, and has coached 49 Olympians from 19 different countries.

Teri McKeever: Head swimming and diving coach for the University of California, Berkley's women's team. Regarded as one of the most successful swim coaches in the United States, she was the head coach of the US Olympic women's swim team in 2012 at the London games and assistant coach at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic games.



Some of the most famous names in swimming are:

  • Michael Phelps (USA)
  • Katie Ledecky (USA)
  • Mark Spitz (USA)
  • Mattew Biondi (USA)
  • Ryan Lochte (USA)
  • Caleb Dressel (USA)
  • Nathan Adrian (USA)
  • Natalie Coughlin (USA)
  • Missy Franklin (USA)
  • Ian Thorpe (Australia)
  • Inge de Bruijn (Netherlands)
  • Kosuke Hagino (Japan)
  • Leisel Jones (Australia)
  • Adam Peaty (Great Britain)
  • Rebecca Adlington (Great Britain)
  • Federica Pellegrini (Italy)
  • Sarah Sjostrom (Sweden)
  • Katinka Hosszú (Hungary)
  • Chad le Clos (South Africa)
  • Joseph Schooling (Singapore)

Swimming Leagues

Prior to 2019, there were no professional swimming teams or leagues. In 2019, the International Swimming League began its inaugural season as a global professional swimming league. The ISL has had to fight FINA in order to protect the swimmers participating, some of whom are large names in the sport, from being banned from international competition, including the Olympics, due to competing in a non-FINA sanctioned international competition. FINA eventually allowed swimmers to compete in the ISL, ensuring that they will not be banned from competitions such as the FINA World Championships and the Olympics.

Swimming Teams

Swimming Teams

The teams in the International Swimming League, or ISL, are:

  • DC Trident: ISL Team in Washington DC, part of the Americas Conference.
  • LA Current: ISL Team in Los Angeles, part of the Americas Conference.
  • New York Breakers: ISL Team in New York City, part of the Americas Conference.
  • Cali Condors: ISL Team in San Francisco, part of the Americas Conference.
  • Toronto Titans: ISL Team in Toronto, Canada slated to begin inaugural season in 2020, part of the Americas Conference.
  • Energy Standard: ISL Team in Paris, France, part of the European-Asian Conference.
  • London Roar: ISL Team in London, England, part of the European-Asian Conference.
  • Team Iron: ISL Team in Budapest, Hungary, part of the European-Asian Conference.
  • Aqua Centurions: ISL Team in Rome, Italy, part of the European-Asian Conference.
  • ISL Tokyo: ISL Team in Tokyo, Japan, slated to begin inaugural season in 2020, part of European-Asian Conference.

Swimming Events

Swimming Events

While there are various swimming dual meets that occur each year at various levels of the sport, some of the biggest swim meets are:

  • Phillips Route 66 National Championships: USA National Championships
  • Olympic Trials: In the US, the trials occur every Olympic year in Omaha, Nebraska.
  • FINA World Championships: World Championships, occur every two years in an odd year
  • Pan American Games: Occur every six years
  • Pan Pacific Championships: Held in the even year between olympics
  • Olympic Games: Occur every four years
  • NCAA National Championships: Occur every year, national championships for collegiate swimming in the United States

Swimming Books

  • Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton: A memoir exploring the worlds of both competitive and recreational swimming
  • The Joy of Swimming by Lisa Congdon: Celebrates swimming with thoughtful quotes, illustrations, and sharing her own passion and the passion of others for swimming.
  • East London Swimmers by Madeleine Waller: A collection of portraits of various swimmers and their stories
  • The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui's Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway: Set in Hawaii in the late 1930's, this book tells the story of a group of impoverished children who set out to become Olympic swimmers
  • Beneath the Surface: My Story: Michael Phelps: A memoir looking back at the hardships that Michael Phelps faced throughout his life and career.
  • No Limits: The Will to Succeed by Michael Phelps and Alan Abrahamson: An autobiography of Michael Phelps, written after winning 8 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which is the world record for the most gold medals won at a single Olympics.

Swimming Websites

Swimming World Magazine: One of the largest swimming magazines in the world, offers news, training, technique, and other lifestyle articles

Swim Swam: Includes news on college swimming, olympic swimming, and swimming videos

ProSwimwear | Swimming Blog: Blog to find news, training tips, swimwear guides, and equipment reviews


What is swimming?

Swimming as a sport is popular, both recreationally and competitively, and uses the propulsion of the body through the water. Competitive swimming is similar to track and field and uses racing style of competition.

What are the types of strokes in swimming?

There are four types of strokes in swimming: backstroke, backstroke, butterfly, and freestyle.

Is swimming an olympic sport?

Swimming is part of the Summer Olympics. Men's swimming events have been on the program since the first modern Olympics in 1896 and women's swimming events were added in 1912.