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Events and Heats, Strokes, Relays

Link to USA Swimming Rules with NVSL Modifications

Events and Heats

A swim meet is comprised of multiple events which are defined by distance, stroke, age group and gender (i.e. 9-10 year old, boys, 50 meter backstroke). An event is either an individual event or a relay event. If more swimmers participate in an event than there are lanes in the pool, the event will be divided into multiple heats. By rule, in Dual Meets events have exactly one heat; at most six swimmers in individual events, and two competing teams in relay events. Relay Carnival is another meet where each event is a single heat of six relay teams. In all other meets, events usually consist of multiple heats.

Heats are designed to be competitive by sorting swimmers by seed time, the best time previously achieved by a swimmer. Within a heat, the fastest swimmer is assigned to the middle lane (#3), then swimmers are distributed by seed time in the order 3-4-2-5-1-6 for a six lane pool. Heats are then ordered generally “slow to fast.” In Open (B) Meets, events are organized on the deck, on the fly; while the Clerks of Course do their best to seed heats as described above, perfect seeding of events is not always possible. Also in Open (B) Meets, heats may contain combined events of different age groups and/or genders swimming the same stroke. This is done to efficiently fill available lanes.

The Strokes

There are four distinct strokes in competitive swimming. They are freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly. The individual medley (IM) is an event in which the athlete swims equal distances of each stroke in this order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle. Each swimming stroke has specific rules which distinguish the strokes from one another and ensure that no swimmer gains an unfair competitive advantage.


Freestyle is defined as any means of swimming across the pool. Any stroke and kick are acceptable. However, the front crawl is nearly universally chosen because it provides the greatest speed. This technique consists of alternating arm pulls with over the water recovery and continuous up/down (flutter) kick. Swimmers must not walk along or spring from the bottom of the pool. In freestyle (only) swimmers may stand on bottom. Swimmers must not propel themselves using the lane lines. In races longer than a single length of the pool, the swimmer must touch the wall at each turn; this is a requirement for every stroke.


Like the freestyle, there are very few restrictions in backstroke as long as swimmers stay on their backs. Backstroke starts are different from all others because the swimmer starts in the water with 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". Backstroke technique is similar to freestyle: alternating arm pulls and continuous flutter kick. The backstroke flip turn is the one exception to staying on back and can be used as part of a turn (not a finish) at the pool wall.


The Breaststroke has two, sequential 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. The kick is a "frog" kick and the feet must be turned 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 touching the wall at the turn or finish. Breaststroke turns and finishes require a simultaneous two-hand touch.


A well-executed butterfly (or fly) is the most beautiful exhibition of power in a swimming pool. Butterfly is the hardest stroke for most swimmers to perfect since it requires the most strength. Both arms must move simultaneously and recovery of both arms must be over the water (arms breaking the surface of the water). Over the water recovery throughout the duration of a race is often the last technical skill achieved by the developing swimmer. The kick is a dolphin kick with both legs moving up and down simultaneously. Turns and finishes require a simultaneous two-hand touch at the wall.

Individual Medley

Individual medley (IM) consists of equal distances of each of the four strokes in the sequence butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. The Gators compete in 100 meter IM for all age groups, which means 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.


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 the freestyle. In the medley relay each swimmer swims a different stroke in the sequence; backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle. The Gators compete in both 100 meter and 200 meter relays; 200 meters for oldest age groups. 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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