Commentary: Is the Rule that FINA is Interpreting Even Necessary?

This week at the Junior World Championships in Singapore, FINA officials made the first public comment that Ryan Lochte’s new underwater technique should have earned him a disqualification in the 200 IM at the regular World Championships earlier this month.

This won’t have come to a complete surprise to the Lochte camp, given that he admitted after the race that he was risking disqualification for doing his underwater kicking at the beginning of the length on his back, and that NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines Tweeted out that FINA was reviewing the rule between prelims and finals to verify if it should be allowed in finals.

No disqualification was made, however, and FINA has only issued its clarification after the fact. Lochte debuted his new technique, in which he does his underwater kicking on his back even in freestyle races traditionally swum on the chest, before flipping over and popping up to swim the traditional front crawl – recognized as the fastest stroke in swimming. Lochte debuted the technique in July at a sectional championship meet in Athens, Georgia, and was never DQ’ed for it.

In a normal freestyle race (which, by rules, is literally free of any regulation on style), this is perfectly acceptable. The caveat comes in the individual medley events, where freestyle is a little more limited. The exact rule from SW 5.1 of the FINA rules book:

SW 5.1 Freestyle means that in an event so designated the swimmer may swim any style, except that in individual medley or medley relay events, freestyle means any style other than backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly.

This rule still leaves open interpretation as to what “other than backstroke, breaststroke, or butterfly” really means. Fair questions would include:

  • Would breaststroke with a butterfly kick be legal?
  • Would one stroke of butterfly followed by a length of freestyle be allowed?
  • If kicking underwater on your back makes a length backstroke, why doesn’t kicking underwater butterfly on your stomach make it butterfly? (Afterall, for a brief moment at the end of each cycle, breaststroke and butterfly are the same stroke).
  • If FINA’s rules define backstroke as having to remain on the back for the entirety of the race except when executing a turn, is Lochte really swimming backstroke if he doesn’t remain on his back?

FINA’s statement specifically clarifies the latter of those questions, and gives some direction (though not total direction) on the second. While our readers have focused on whether or not FINA is quashing the creativity of Lochte and his coach David Marsh, or if Lochte was purposefully trying to bend the rules, we’d rather look at the rule itself, as its written, and whether the rule is appropriately written.

If we’re going to call it freestyle, why limit the stroke?

If the rules say that the individual medley is to be swum with one lap of butterfly, followed by one lap of backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle, in that order, then what is served by limiting the freestyle from being one of the other strokes? In 2015, there is no swimmer at any reasonable level anywhere in the world who would be able to swim 50 or 100 meters of breaststroke, butterfly, or backstroke (as we all understand it) faster than they would be able to freestyle, and thus there’s no reason a swimmer would choose to do the above-water part of the race in any fashion other than

In the case that I’ve overlooked someone in that analysis, and there is an exception to that rule, it would be quite rare, and not worthy of maintaining an entire complex definition of “freestyle at the end of an IM” for a modicum of the population.

Further, there is presently no known manner of swimming other than the four primary competitive strokes (including the front crawl) that would logically replace them in a competitive arena at the end of an IM – so the rule could be revisited if someone developed such a manner.

If the intent was specifically to prevent swimmers from streamlining on their backs, then that’s what the rule should say. If a stroke is to be called freestyle, then it should in fact be a free style.

There is a matter of tradition – the individual medley has traditionally been four different strokes. Hence, “medley.” But if that is the true intent, and we believe the above statement that there’s four legitimate competitive strokes, then why not instead….

Define the 4th length of the IM as “Front Crawl.”

There is one rational argument against defining the 4th length of the IM as “front crawl” in the rule books, and that’s because the FINA rule book doesn’t presently have a definition of the front crawl.

This would take some effort to appropriately define a stroke that is recognized by everyone reading this page, but perhaps not as readily defined on a highly-technical level.

Still, if the debate becomes giving a definition of a stroke (defining front crawl) or leaving a three word interpretation of what a stroke isn’t (namely: ‘breaststroke,’ ‘butterfly,’ or ‘backstroke’) without regard to the dimension of time or totality of the descriptions of those races in its own rule books, the former is a less cumbersome task than the latter.

This is not the first time this debate has come into my head, nor I’m sure the first time for any of our readers. Historically, this rule, however, has been little more than trivia used in esoteric, hypothetical conversations on pool decks. Now, however, one swimmer believes he’s found a better reason to examine the precision of the rule, and it’s worth the time and debate to do so.

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bobo gigi

Very interesting.
I’ve never thought about all of that every time I’ve watched an IM race. 🙂



Kudos to the thoughtfulness and logic put into this article. I’m a stroke and turn official and have thought about the nuances of freestyle as defined in the IM frequently. I would never have dreamed in a million years that FINA would define what Lochte did as backstroke. I think FINA has just made more work for themselves and I’m not sure a stroke and turn official will have the “guts”, as Rowdy Gaines put it in a video commentary of Lochte’s IM race at Worlds, to make the DQ.

Stroke & Turn

In my mind, the strongest point against what FINA did is your third bullet. Butterfly has no required cycle, meaning you need not ever take an arm stroke. (If you do, then certain rules apply: The USA swimming rule (101.3.2) states that “Both arms must be brought forward simultaneously over the water and pulled back simultaneously under the water throughout the race” but this has not be interpreted to require arm strokes actually be taken.) All you have to do is have your shoulders at or past vertical towards the breast, and, as for the kick, all up and down movements of the legs and feet must be simultaneous and not alternate in relation to each other, i.e. a dolphin… Read more »

Stephen Ward

Not sure I fully agree with you. The swimmer can be fully submerged for up to 15m after the start and each turn following which some part of the swimmer should break the surface. A single underwater pull is allowed to bring the swimmer to the surface.
The fastest stroke is fly kicking underwater but I don’t think that kicking on the surface is faster than using an arm pull. The butterfly would be legal with 15 m kick underwater; 1 arm pull to bring the swimmer to the surface, then fly kicking on the surface to the end of the length.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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