USA Swimming Updates Rules on Backstroke Finishes to Comply With World Aquatics

In a spring that has been marked by rules updates by World Aquatics, formerly known as FINA, USA Swimming on Friday informed a select group of its members of another rules change that brings it in compliance with World Aquatics, the world governing body of the sport. The newest rules change addresses backstroke finishes and allows a swimmer to fully resubmerge prior to the finish.

Other rules changes revealed in recent weeks:

Per USA Swimming, a swimmer may fully resubmerge prior to the finish of a backstroke race “once some part of the head of the swimmer has passed the 5 meter mark (long course and short course meters) or 5 yard mark (short course yards) immediately prior to reaching the finish… prior to the touch.” In other words, swimmers, once they pass the closing flags, can resubmerge in backstroke races.

This is a significant rules change as it nearly denied a gold medal to 2021 World Champion Justin Ress in the 50 backstroke at the FINA World Championships in Budapest in July. Ress swam a 24.12 in Budapest to get the touch 0.02 ahead of World Record holder Hunter Armstrong; however, Ress was initially disqualified for resubmerging too soon prior to touching the wall. The disqualification was eventually overturned after deliberation by the officials. This swim represented Ress’s first indiviual world championships gold medal and clocked in as the 14th-fastest swim in history. Moments later, a video review disqualified Ress for being fully submerged on the finish.

Additionally, runner-up Hunter Armstrong, also from the United States, was awarded the gold medal, and then Ress’s DQ was overturned, giving Ress the gold, Armstrong the silver, and Ksawery Masiuk of Poland the bronze, knocking recent 100 backstroke champion and World Record holder Thomas Ceccon of Italy to 4th.

The new rules change clarifies the world governing body’s stance on the rule. In October, World Aquatics–then still FINA–withdrew a proposal that would have allowed backstrokers to fully submerge on the finish due to “unclear wording,” per FINA Technical Committee Chairperson Craig Hunter.

“Our main concern in relation to that — obviously we have approved that already — we want to make sure that when the rule is drafted and published, that it’s clear and can be fairly judged all over the world, and not just at FINA World Championships where there are underwater cameras,” said Hunter. “It’s important that all our rules have universal application, and that’s why at this time we believe that it’s not appropriate for us to submit that for approval to this Congress.”

“We’d like to resolve this particular rule change sooner, and once we agree on an appropriate form of words, we will be discussing with the FINA Bureau and our legal team to see how that can best be implemented,” Hunter said.

There has been some debate among coaches as to whether the technique that sees a swimmer re-submerge before the finish after throwing their head back is, in fact, a faster finish, and how that relates to the necessity of the rule.

The email from USA Swimming reads as follows:

To: USA Swimming Board of Directors, General Chairs, Officials Chairs, Rules & Regulations Committee, USA Swimming Officials and USA Swimming Coaches, 

I hope you have been enjoying your time on and off the deck this season. I am writing to inform you of a change to the USA Swimming Rules to comply with World Aquatics Swimming Rule 6.3. Very recently World Aquatics changed their Swimming Rule 6.3 to allow athletes a greater distance within which they may resubmerge prior to a backstroke finish. Accordingly, effective immediately, we have amended our USA Swimming Rule 101.4.2 to include the additional language shown below in red.

  1. USA Swimming Rule USA Swimming Rule 101.4.2 (pp 24) – To Comply with World Aquatics SW6.3
Stroke — The swimmer shall push off on his back and continue swimming on the back throughout the race. Some part of the swimmer must break the surface of the water throughout the race, except it is permissible for the swimmer to be completely submerged during the turn and for a distance of not more than 15 meters (16.4 yards) after the start and after each turn. By that point, the head must have broken the surface of the water.  Additionally, once some part of the head of the swimmer has passed the 5 meter mark (long course and short course meters) or 5 yard mark (short course yards) immediately prior to reaching the finish, the swimmer may be completely submerged prior to the touch.

Dissimilarly from the rules addressed in my communication earlier this week, you will not see this additional language in your physical 2023 Rulebook. Regardless, the entire verbiage shown above (both black and red ink) is now the effective USA Swimming Rule 101.4.2 and will be available on the USA Swimming website in a dedicated section entitled “Additional 2023 Rulebook Changes” on the Rules & Policies Page.

It has also been brought to my attention that our rules surrounding the Starter’s commands are slightly dissimilar to World Aquatics. Specifically, the “take your mark” command is “take your marks” throughout World Aquatics SW4. Accordingly, effective immediately, we have amended our rules to use the “take your marks” verbiage. This appears in several places in our rulebook and a separate communication is being sent to all officials to ensure consistent starting language across all our decks. For now, please simply expect to start hearing this command at our meets.

If you have any questions or concerns about either of these changes, please do not hesitate to reach out to your LSC Officials’ Chair, Matt Wilson, your USA Swimming Officials’ Chair, or me.

Thank you for your time and your dedication to our sport.

With best regards,

Derek Paul
Chair, USA Swimming Rules & Regulations Committee

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Chappy Liao
8 days ago

This change makes the rules more reasonable, new world record will come out soon.

Nick the biased Aussie
8 days ago

This is confusing. Why is it 15m off the start but 5yards from the finish for NCAA? Shouldn’t it be consistent?

Braden M
9 days ago

Are we allowed to do this going into our back to breast turn for the IM’s?

B $
9 days ago

Now get rid of the “non-continuous arm pull” calls going into turns

11 days ago

Will this be legal at NCAAs? Does the NCAA follow USA swimming rules or will they have to pass it on their own?

Reply to  NCAA>ISL
11 days ago

They don’t by default.

So no, not legal (unless there’s been a secret NCAA memo on the topic).

Also…I’m not convinced that 3 weeks is enough time for anyone to figure out how to hack this new rule and perfect it to where they’ll do it at NCAAs. But maybe not.

Bailey Ludden
Reply to  Braden Keith
10 days ago

I’m interested to see in the future if resubmerging right at the 5m mark is more effective than the regular finish just fully sumbmerged, or maybe going back under at 2 or 3 meters will be the best

John G
12 days ago

So, can I do underwaters to the 15, take two strokes and go back to underwaters?

Reply to  John G
12 days ago


If you really want to.

Prolly not that fast.

John G
Reply to  Braden Keith
12 days ago

Cool. Trying it tomorrow!

Bailey Ludden
Reply to  John G
10 days ago

No, just inside the flags on the finish you can go back underwater is what it seems like

12 days ago

when is this rule effective… Ill do it tonight

VA Steve
12 days ago

Great rule change. The cascading effect down to club and summer swim will help significantly. Fully submerge is so overcalled it’s insane.

About Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson originally hails from Clay Center, Kansas, where he began swimming at age six.  At age 14 he began swimming club year-round and later with his high school team, making state all four years.  He was fortunate enough to draw the attention of Kalamazoo College where he went on to …

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