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Back to the Basics - The Forward Start

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This month, we are going to continue our review of the rules for strokes, starts, turns, and relays. This should provide some information for new members as well as a refresher for us "experienced" competitors. This month focuses on the forward start, which is used in freestyle, breaststroke, and butterfly.


The starting sequence actually begins well before swimmers even step up onto the starting platform. By rule, the referee uses a series of short whistles to signal to swimmers to "remove all clothing except for swimwear". This is the signal to prepare for your event. Depending on the size and the pace of the meet, the referee may decide when to give the short whistles while the previous race is still finishing. Or, the referee may wait until all swimmers from the preceding heat are finished. In practice, the short whistles are normally followed by an announcement of the event number or heat number to remind swimmers, timers, and other officials of the upcoming race.

Once the race is ready to proceed, the referee uses one long whistle to signal to swimmers to step up onto the starting platform, up to the edge of the pool deck, or to enter the water. A forward start may be taken from the starting platform, the pool deck, or in the water using a push from the wall. It is the swimmer's choice. If you are starting from the starting platform, at least one foot must be towards the front surface of the platform. (That doesn't mean the foot must be right at the edge of the block, but generally must be in the front part of the platform.)

If you are starting the water, make sure to enter feet first. When starting in the water using a forward start, swimmers may face any direction. (USA Swimming rules would require swimmers to face the pool, so this is a key difference.) Also, under USMS rules, a backstroke start is permitted in a freestyle event. (However, if you are swimming backstroke - or any other stroke - in a freestyle event, your time may only be recorded as a freestyle time.)

Once all swimmers are ready, the starter will give the familiar "take your mark" command. This is the signal to assume your starting position. Swimmers may assume any starting position that maintains at least one foot towards the front of the starting platform or the pool deck; or, if starting in the water, swimmers may assume any position that does not remove at least one foot from contact with the all and at least one hand from contact with the wall or the starting platform.

The rule then says that when are swimmers are "stationary", the starter shall give the starting signal. Note the term "stationary". That doesn't mean swimmers must be completely motionless, but swimmers must remain on their marks and cannot leave this position prior to the starting signal. While there is no rule that requires swimmers to "come down together", all swimmers must respond promptly to the "take your mark" command. If one or more swimmers do not respond quickly, or if everyone is not set, or the starter feels that everyone is not ready, the starter may release swimmers by saying "stand" or "stand up". At this point, swimmers may leave their marks, relax, and even step off of the starting platform. Usually, the starter will simply try again with another "take your mark" command, but may sometimes provide additional instructions to one or more swimmers. If everything goes well, however, the "take your mark" command is followed the starting signal, which must be both audial and visual.

What happens if you enter the water or start before the starting signal is given? The starter will usually release swimmers with the "stand" command. By rule, a swimmer who commits a false start is disqualified, but the disqualification must be confirmed by both the referee and starter. Sometimes, one of these officials will decide that the start was not fair or there was some other factor that caused the swimmer to start before the signal. In that case, the swimmer might not be charged with a false start and we can try again to start the race.

If a swimmer leaves their mark before the starting signal, but the signal is given anyway, the race is allowed to proceed and the swimmer could be disqualified for a false start after the race is over. The starter will not "recall" a race in the event of a false start, but could still recall a race if the start was not fair. While recalls should be rare, if you hear the starting signal repeated (likely several times), that is the recall signal.

Other things that you can do to ensure a good start:


  • Keep track of the meet! Events can run ahead of or behind a projected timeline and officials are under no obligation to wait if the meet is running faster than projected. If you miss an event, officials are not obligated to seed you into another heat and will not conduct a re-swim.
  • Check with the timers in your lane before your race to verify that you are in the correct heat and lane. Let one of the officials know if there is a discrepancy.
  • If you need a little more time or need assistance to step up or enter the water, let the officials know ahead of time. Sometimes, it may be possible to allow swimmers to use a ladder to enter the water from the side of pool, but make sure the officials know your intent and have provided their approval.
  • Step up (or in) promptly at the long whistle signal. If you delay, or stand back behind the blocks where you are not visible, the referee and starter may assume that you have withdrawn from the race.
  • Deaf or hearing-impaired swimmers should inform the starter. Make sure you can see the starter (who will use hand signals in addition to the whistle commands) and the visual starting signal (normally a light on top of the starting system).

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