Swim coaches around the world will soon be forced to add a caveat to one of the most basic swimming adages regarding the freestyle flipturn.
Novice swimmers often attempt to do the flip and rotate onto their stomachs all in one motion, resulting in a long time spent on a wall. The resulting instruction is for swimmers to “push off on their backs,” and then rotate onto their stomachs while doing their underwater kicks.
While this will still be the preferred technique for freestyle-only races, in the last leg of IM and medley relay events, this will no longer be a legal turn.
This summer, American superstar Ryan Lochte attempted to pioneer a new underwater technique whereby after his freestyle flipturns, he would actually do the majority of his underwaters, which were already among the best in the world, on his back, and flip over just before surfacing. While this technique is an exaggeration of the “push off on your back” technique, most world class swimmers are “past vertical” toward their backs when they do a freestyle flipturn, if even for a moment.
FINA, citing the rule that only allows the backstroke to be swum on one leg of an IM, ruled that this does constitute backstroke swimming, and thus is not a legal technique specifically in the IM races.
Lochte used this technique to win the gold medal in the 200 IM, and so most of the focus on the interpretation has been regarding the one breaststroke to freestyle turn. There’s no intermediary turns in a long course 200 IM.
Suddenly, however, those intermediary turns have come into focus, and this will drastically affect the way that coaches are forced to teach their swimmers on how to do freestyle flipturns.
According to an email from USA Swimming Rules & Regulations Committee member Jim Holcomb, the “past vertical” interpretation applies to both intermediary turns on the IM’s and on the freestyle anchor leg of the medley relay (though not on freestyle-only events).
In an email sent to Wisconsin official Julia Krueger, a member of the Wisconsin Swimming Officials’ Committee, Holcomb says that:
The “Lochte” DOES apply to the intermediate turn in freestyle during the medley. Leaving the wall past vertical toward the back in the flip turn in the freestyle portion of the medley is a dq, in both the IM and relay.
Krueger says that she’s concerned that this will lead to ‘over-officiating’ and confusion among especially younger swimmers as to proper flip-turn technique. “I understand it on the breaststroke to freestyle turn, and in a case as prolonged as what Ryan Lochte is doing, but to change the intermediary freestyle turns seems like an overreach.”
As can be seen in the video below of the women’s 800 free from U.S. Nationals (it’s easier to see in a longer event), every visible swimmer appears to be past-vertical when their feet leave the wall on their freestyle flip-turns. Below that, in the men’s 400 IM from the same meet, the same technique can be seen. This race happened before FINA issued their interpretation.
Multiple requests to answer follow-up questions regarding the new interpretation have yielded no direct results from USA Swimming either through their media relations staff or through members of the rules & regulations committee. While USA Swimming won’t immediately update its rules book to reflect the new FINA interpretation, all FINA rules changes and interpretations do immediately take effect at the USA Swimming level.
A request has also been made to the NFHS, the governing body for most high school swimming in the United States, for their interpretation.