In our back to basics series, we are up to breaststroke. Breaststroke is the stroke with the most rules. I think it is also the stroke where the rules have evolved the most in the last couple of decades. When I started swimming summer league at age 8, I got disqualified most every time. But, by the time I was a teenager, I was a breaststroker and have been ever since. Maybe there is some kind of correlation between being an official and swimming the stroke with the most rules?
Rather than cover everything comprehensively, let's break it down with a Q&A format on the different aspects of the stroke.
The Stroke Cycle
A cycle of breaststroke is one stroke and one kick, in that order. The definition of the cycle raises up a couple of frequently asked questions.
What if a swimmer starts by taking a kick as the first action after a start or after a turn? Since the rules define the cycle as one stroke and one kick, in that order, starting with a kick is not in compliance with the rules. You must start each cycle with a pull.
Can you swim breaststroke just by pulling and not moving the legs? No, both a stroke and kick is required for each cycle.
Can you take a pull that is not followed by a kick before a turn or a finish? Yes, by rule, it is permitted to take an incomplete stroke cycle prior to a legal touch before each turn and at the finish.
Can the head go below the surface of the water? Yes, the only requirement is that the head must break the surface of the water at least once during each complete stroke cycle.
Can I take two pulls in a row without a kick? No, a cycle is defined as one stroke - only one stroke - and one kick in that order.
Can I take two kicks in a row without a pull? What part of "A cycle is defined as one stroke and one kick in that order" is not clear?
The rules say that the body shall be kept "on the breast". This is a trick because the rules use the language "on the breast" but in the glossary we define "on the breast" as "at or past the vertical towards the breast". So, the body and the shoulders do not have to be perfectly aligned, but the arms must move the same horizontal plane. If the officials judge that one arm is substantially lower than the other, then you could be disqualified, but the official should be looking at the arms, not the position of the shoulders.
Does this mean I can have a shoulder that is slightly dropped during the stroke or at the touch? Yes, as long as the arms move in the same horizontal plane.
The Underwater Cycle
The rules say that swimmers are permitted to take one stroke and one kick while completely submerged after the start and after each turn. This is the only time when the hands may go past the hipline.
Do you have to take an underwater cycle? No, an underwater cycle is permitted, not required.
When must the head break the surface of the water? The head must break the surface by the time the hands turn inward at the widest part of the second stroke. So, you can take one complete stroke, kick, and then the hands can drift apart, but then the head must break the surface before you start to pull at the second stroke.
Swimmers are permitted one downward butterfly kick (use it wisely) at any time prior to the first breaststroke kick. Does that mean that the butterfly kick can come before the pull? Yes, or it can come during the first pull. Does that mean that a downward butterfly kick is permitted at the end of the first kick? No, the butterfly kick must be taken before the first breaststroke kick. Do you have to do a butterfly kick? No, it is permitted, not required.
The rules say that the arms must be pushed forward together from the breast on, under, or over the water. Does this mean that the arms can break the surface of the water? Yes, as long as the arms move together, but the elbows must be kept under the water. The only exception is on the final stroke before the turn or the finish when it is permissible for the elbows to break the surface of the water.
What if I reach up to adjust my goggles while swimming breaststroke? Since all movements of the arms must be simultaneous and the arms shall be pushed forward together, this action would be an infraction.
What if I reach up to wave to my friend on deck while swimming breaststroke? Seriously? No, you cannot do that.
The rules say that all movements of the legs must be simultaneous, in the same horizontal plan, and without alternating movement. The feet must be turned outward during the propulsive part of the kick.
Can I do a scissor kick? No
Can I do a butterfly kick? No
Can I do a flutter or freestyle kick? No. (Are you getting the point here?)
What if one foot is turned inward and one is turned outward during the kick? That is called a scissor kick - see above.
Can my feet break the surface of the water? Yes! As long as this action is not followed by a downward butterfly kick.
Turns and Finishes
The touch shall be with both hands, simultaneous, and shall be at, above, or below the surface of the water. Once a legal touch has been made, swimmers may turn in any manner desired.
Does that mean I can do a flip turn? Yes! As long you make a legal touch (two hands, simultaneously) and as long as the body is towards the breast when the feet leave the wall. Between the legal touch and the feet leaving the wall, you can contort your body any way you like.
Can my head be underwater at the touch? Yes, as long as the head breaks the surface at least one during the last complete or incomplete stroke cycle prior to the touch.
Are breaststrokers totally awesome for remembering all of these rules and swimming the toughest, most elegant, and unique stroke? Yes, of course, but that is not in the rules.
USMS Rules Committee Chair