Official Language of FINA’s New Underwater Interpretation as of Junior Worlds

FINA has made it clear it plans to officially clarify the interpretation of underwater kicking rules within IM races, and we’ve got a blueprint for what the new interpretation might look like.

SwimSwam has learned that a written interpretation of the rule was distributed to officials at last week’s FINA World Junior Championships, giving some insights into what the exact language of the new interpretation will look like when it is submitted later this year.

Some background: U.S. star Ryan Lochte began using a new underwater kicking technique this summer, staying on his back for all of his underwater kickouts on both backstroke and freestyle.

But at the FINA World Championships, rumblings began that Lochte could be disqualified for his new technique in IM races, if officials interpreted underwater kicking on one’s back as technically “backstroke” – swimming backstroke on the freestyle portion of an IM is illegal.

Lochte won the 200 IM without a DQ, but said after the race he believed the rule would soon be changed.

Last week, Germany’s SwimSportNews reported that FINA had declared Lochte’s technique officially illegal, and FINA’s executive director Cornel Marculescu told SwimSwam that the new interpretation of the rule would be officially submitted in November.

That interpretation is very likely to mirror the one distributed to officials at Junior Worlds. We’ve got that interpretation below:

FINA Technical Committee Medley Interpretation


According to SW 9.1 each of the strokes must cover one quarter (1/4) of the distance.

Being on the back when leaving the wall for the Freestyle portion of the Ind. Medley is covering more than one quarter of the distance in the style of Backstroke and is, therefore, a disqualification.

Backstroke swimming is only defined as being on the back.


FINA Rulebook references for the TSC interpretation.



SW 5.1

“except that in individual medley or medley relay events, freestyle means any style other than backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly.”



SW 6.1 to SW 6.5

There are no kick or stroke requirements.  The swimmer “must push off and swim upon his back throughout the race”  “Some part of the swimmer must break the surface of the water throughout the race.”  Except for the 15 m at the start and turn.



SW 7.1 to SW 7.6

There are specific stroke and kick requirements.


SW 8.1 to SW 8.5

There are specific stroke and kick requirements.



SW 9.1  Each of the strokes must cover one quarter (1/4) of the distance.

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6 years ago

Funny how FINA has made no comment about the butterfly kick in freestyle though…..technically that would be the stroke of fly applying this rule….

6 years ago

So how about leaving the wall on your side and then kicking on your back? Seems that is legal by the rule.

Kirk Nelson
Reply to  Calbearfan
6 years ago

FINA’s interpretation seems to be that if you are on your back, you are swimming backstroke. It doesn’t matter how you push off the wall.

The flaw in this argument, of course, is many swimmers have always been on their backs (right after they push off the turn) during the “free” portion of an IM event, they just didn’t remain on their back like Lochte did. Strict intepretation of FINA’s rules would mean you better be turned toward the breast as soon as your feet leave the wall during the free portion of an IM race.

James Adams
Reply to  Kirk Nelson
6 years ago

Well said Kirk! 🙂 Looks like I need to keep myself up on the rules before next summer’s Nats

6 years ago

I’m still not seeing a legal justification for outlawing what Lochte did. From the rulebook cited in this article for backstroke:

“There are no kick or stroke requirements. The swimmer ‘must push off and swim upon his back throughout the race’.”

If you push off on your back, but change to your side or your stomach, that’s not backstroke. Or am I misunderstanding the backstroke rules?

Reply to  Tim
6 years ago

It has nothing to do with the backstroke rules. The issue is that Lochte was doing a “backstroke” kick/streamline during the “freestyle” portion of the IM.

Reply to  Briscoe
6 years ago

Per this article and everything else I’ve seen on the topic, FINA is saying that’s illegal because Lochte was doing backstroke.

However, the rulebook says for backstroke that the swimmer must push off and swim upon his back throughout the race. If the swimmer isn’t staying on his back, that’s not backstroke, *per the current rules*

My question still stands. Unless FINA changes that portion of the backstroke rule, they will have two contradictory rules.

Reply to  Tim
6 years ago

By your logic – If a swimmer swims 49 yards/meters on his back, then rolls to his stomach for the last meter it wouldn’t be considered backstroke… I think if you swim any part of the race on your back, that is considered backstroke.

Reply to  Tim
6 years ago

Or are you trying to say that if you do not perform the 2nd part of the backstroke requirement, ie. the swimming on your back part, you do not fulfill all requirements for the backstroke event? I can see what you are saying, but I think doing even one part of the requirements equates to swimming the stroke.

Reply to  Mike
6 years ago

Well, in the rulebook, there are two requirements for it to be considered backstroke:

1) That you’re on your back
2) That you stay on your back the entire time, not counting any flip turns

Lochte met requirement #1, but did not meet requirement #2.

Currently, you get DQd in a backstroke race if you turn from your back while not in the process of doing a flipturn, as moving from your back means you’re no longer doing backstroke.

That’s where I want more clarification from FINA. The rulebook says you must be on your back the entire time for it to be backstroke. Per that wording, if you only stay on your back to a certain point and… Read more »

6 years ago

I don’t tlike it at all but if that is what the rule is that is to be applied then that is what it will be.

However, this only mentions the turn as a swimmer leaves the wall after the breaststroke. What about the 350M turn in a 400IM or the 350M turn in a 4 x 100 Medley relay? Is leaving the wall on your back then also backstroke?

Kirk Nelson
Reply to  linny
6 years ago

Yes, this would apply off any wall during the fourth quarter of a medley swim.

Joey Garcia
Reply to  Kirk Nelson
6 years ago

I think this proposed interpretation stinks.

If it goes through we are going to have at least a year of heavy DQs in the IMs.

It is likely to slow down the IMs as swimmers will have to figure out a new kind of flip turn that will put them on their breast when they leave the wall.

6 years ago

As someone already stated, under this interpretation, if a swimmer uses a butterfly kick while streamlining at the beginning of the freestyle portion of the IM, which is exactly the same way that the swimmer streamlines at the start and at the turns during the butterfly portion of the IM, is that now considered swimming butterfly for more than 1/4 of the IM and the swimmer should be disqualified?

6 years ago

I rember during the era before phelps when underwater dolphin kick was a novel concept and ‘less was more’ when it came to suits using summer league to experiment with new racing techniques. One such technique was Dolphin kicking on my back in freestyle. I got dq’ed for this but my mother, the head official over turned this dq. She told me that based on her understanding of the rules freesyle was whatever you wanted except in the IM where it was anything not definitely as butterfly backstroke or breaststroke. She also told me the rules of IM turns were Basically finish like the finish of that stroke start like the start of the following stroke, and despite using that… Read more »

6 years ago

And not long before that (OK well quite a while 🙂 ) swimmers used to have to stay on their backs for backstroke throughout the race. At the time I thought it was pretty bonkers to be able to turn onto your front during a backstroke race in order to perform your turn. Given that you can be on your front during a backstroke race it defies logic that you can’t be on your back at all (or presumably even towards your back) when swimming freestyle albeit during the freestyle section of a medley.

6 years ago

Most of the comments made here are about the rule itself. Has anyone TRIED to NOT be “past vertical toward the back” off of a freestyle flip turn when flipping straight over (not leaning legs to one side). I tried it this morning. I’m a USA stroke and turn official and I disqualified myself 100% of the time because the instant that my toes leave the wall, my shoulder was past vertical toward the back. At the end of the workout, I tried to lean, but that turn felt outrageously slow and basically I was turning myself prior to my feet hitting the wall. I hope someone our stroke and turn officials stay as oblivious to this minor detail as… Read more »

Reply to  SwimFL
6 years ago

SwimFL – this brings up the overlooked question of the whole thing – how does this apply to the middle turn on the 400 IM? Because remember that in the 200 IM, there’s not a flipturn from breaststroke to freestyle, and this interpretation is ONLY relevant in the IM.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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