The ISL has released its full rulebook for the 2021 season, with several notable twists and updates to the league’s format.
New Skins Stroke Selection Process
Last year, the winner of the women’s 4×100 medley relay got to pick the stroke of the women’s skins race. Same went for the men’s relay/skins race. This year, there are several more wrinkles to the process:
- The top 3 teams in aggregate medley relay points advance to the stroke selection process.
- The aggregate points are the combined points total from each of a team’s two relays. So a team that takes 1st and 8th in the women’s medley relay (20 points) would technically finish behind a team that took 2nd and 3rd (26 points).
- The third-place team in medley relay scoring gets to exclude one stroke from the selection process. For example, the third-scoring team could strike down breaststroke as a skins option to avoid facing Lilly King.
- The second-place team in medley relay scoring gets to exclude another stroke from the selection process.
- The first-place team in medley relay scoring chooses between the two remaining strokes to lock in the skin race stroke for the next day.
This process is done separately for the women’s medley relay/skins race and the men’s medley relay/skins race.
The major outcome is that we might see more variety in the skins races this season, unlike last year when the same teams mostly had a monopoly on the medley relay wins and only switched up their skins stroke selections when the meet didn’t really matter much.
400 free & 400 IM Checkpoints & Increased Scoring
One of the biggest rule changes will increase the scoring for the 400 free and 400 IM – currently the longest events in the official ISL format.
A typical event scores 37 total points across all eight places. A skins race scores 85 total points across its three rounds. The 400s will roughly split the difference, with 53 points up for grabs. Here’s how it will work:
- Checkpoint at 100 meters – 16 points awarded to the top 5
- 1st: 6
- 2nd: 4
- 3rd: 3
- 4th: 2
- 5th 1
- Checkpoint at 200 meters – 16 points awarded to the top 5
- 1st: 6
- 2nd: 4
- 3rd: 3
- 4th: 2
- 5th 1
There’s no cutoff time at these checkpoints (so athletes in the top five don’t have to worry about a points penalty), but there will be a jackpot margin where the leader at the checkpoint can steal points from the rest of the top five.
Jackpot Money Split 50/50
While the ISL’s jackpot rules (new for the 2020 season) did add some drama to meets, and did incentivize athletes not to sandbag races, they also drew some criticism for making prize money less even among the league’s participants. Two top-finishing athletes “stole” upwards of $4000 in prize money from other athletes by jackpotting away their finishes. (Caeleb Dressel won $4600 in jackpotted prize money on top of his regular prize money and Ryan Murphy won a whopping $7600 in jackpots from other athletes.)
If an athlete would have won prize money, but had their points jackpotted away, new ISL rules will split the prize money 50/50 between that athlete and the swimmer who jackpotted them.
New Event – Mixed Medley Relay Instead of Mixed Free
On day 2, instead of a mixed-gender 4×100 free relay, the ISL will instead run a mixed-gender 4×100 medley relay. That should help a little bit reduce the general scoring weight placed on 100 freestyles, and should help stroke specialists gain a little more relevance.
Other Rule Changes
- Minimum roster size: 14 women / 14 men / 28 total athletes
- Competing roster: subs declared the day before the match by 7 PM. If a swimmer becomes ill or injured during day 1 of a meet, the team can swap them for a declared sub at the start of day 2.
- Faster jackpot times in men’s 100 fly, men’s 100 IM, relays
- Faster cutoff times in men’s 100 back, men’s 100 breast, men’s 100 fly, men’s 100 IM, relays
- A slight change to the event schedule, with the 100 breast and 200 free switching places. The change appears mostly related to the swapped relay event – previously, the 200 free opened that session, leaving two events before the mixed 4×100 free relay that likely had some crossover with individual 200 free swimmers. Now that the mixed relay is a medley relay, the 100 breast will open the session to provide more space leading up to the mixed medley, and the 200 free now comes directly before the mixed medley relay.
- After each round of the skins, athletes must exit the pool within 30 seconds after the finish of the race – that effectively outlaws a ‘cool down’ swim between rounds.
- Athletes must exit the pool even in backstroke.
- Increased prize money to 5th- and 6th-place finishers in all individual and relay events.
- We’ve already covered the expanded season and playoffs here. The regular season is roughly the same, with 10 matches and each team swimming 4 of the 10. The top six teams in season standings will make the playoffs. The bottom four teams will swim an 11th regular season match, a Wild Card qualifier, with the top two joining the playoffs. The expanded playoffs will be six matches, with each team competing three times and the top four in playoff standings making the league final.