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Descriptions of the Swim Strokes

Descriptions of the Swim Strokes

If you are not a swimmer, the strokes and their rules can be confusing. Since most people do not have a copy of the US Swimming Rules, below is a description of each stroke and the two relays in competition rules below are the US Swimming rules as modified for use in the NVSL. Teams in other leagues may have slightly different rules.

In the NVSL league, each age group has events for boys and girls in each stroke (8 and under do not do butterfly) and the distance increases by age group. In addition to individual races in each stroke, there are relays by age group, both individual and team relays. Below is a description of each stroke and the relay events.



Freestyle is defined as any means of swimming across the pool, although most people’s fastest manner is what is commonly known as the “crawl.” Any stroke and kick are acceptable however, you may not: (1) walk on the bottom or pull yourself along using the lane lines; and (2) in a 50 Meter race (two pool lengths) you must touch the wall at the 25 meter end before touching the wall at the 50 meter end (This may seem obvious, but sometimes swimmers miss the wall at the turning end of the pool).


Like freestyle, almost anything goes on the backstroke as long as you stay on your back. Watching swimmers learn the backstroke is a perverse sense of fun as they bounce off lane lines and wonder where they are. Eventually, they learn to guide off the lane lines, use the overhead backstroke flags and the lane line markings to know where they are in the pool, and count strokes from the flags to the wall. Backstroke starts are different from all others because the swimmer is in the water feet planted against the wall, and hanging on to either another swimmer’s legs or the lip on the pool awaiting the starter’s signal. “Legs” must be grabbed below the knee. Persons serving in an official capacity (such as timers or coaches) may not serve as “legs”. If your swimmer is a backstroker, he or she will eventually learn the backstroke flip turn. This is the one exception to staying on your back and can be used only as part of a turn (not a finish) at the pool wall.


Breaststroke has two components, the kick and the arm pull. The pull and its recovery must both be under the breast and cannot extend further back than the waist area. The kick is a “frog” kick and the toes must be pointed outward during the propulsive part of the kick. The arm pull and kick must be in an alternating sequence and the elbows must stay below the water except for tagging the wall at the finish. Breaststroke turns and finishes require a simultaneous two-hand touch.


A well-executed butterfly (or Fly) is the most beautiful exhibition of power you’ll ever see in a swimming pool. Quite frankly, the fly is the hardest stroke for most swimmers to perfect and while they are learning it many look like they are drowning. There are two components of the fly; the arm pull and the kick. The arm pull must be an over the water recovery (elbows breaking the surface of the water) with the arms moving simultaneously. The kick is a dolphin style kick with both legs moving simultaneously. Turns and finishes require a simultaneous two-hand touch at the wall.

Individual Medley

The individual medley (or IM) is when an individual swims each of the four strokes in the sequence butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle. We swim a 100 Meter IM, which equals 25 Meters, or one pool length, of each stroke. In a 100 Meter IM, every turn is a stroke change and stroke finish rules apply. This means no backstroke flip turns. The 8 and under group does not swim IM.

Team Relays

There are two kinds of relays, the freestyle relay and the medley relay. Both involve a team of four swimmers, each swimming one-quarter of the total distance. In the freestyle relay, each swimmer swims freestyle. In the medley relay, the sequence is backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle. At the NVSL Relay Carnival, swimmers eight and under swim a modified medley relay where the fly leg of the relay is replaced with a freestyle leg. In all relays, each swimmer must wait until the previous swimmer touches the wall prior to leaving the deck. Running starts or pushes from teammates are not allowed.

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