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Back to the Basics - Backstroke

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Happy New Year to all and best wishes for a great 2017 winter swim season! This month's blog entry continues our "back to the basics" series with a review of the rules and frequently asked questions involving backstroke.

The Backstroke Start
Last month, we summarized the rules for the forward start, but we know that backstroke starts are different. The backstroke start must be performed in the water. During the starting sequence, the familiar short whistles are still used to signal swimmers to remove all clothing except for swimwear and prepare for your event, and the long whistle is the signal to enter the water. Please enter the water in a safe manner - preferably feet first! For backstroke events only, there is a second long whistle which is the signal for swimmers "take their positions on the wall without undue delay". The second long whistle replaces what some swimmers might remember as the "place your feet" command.

When assuming a starting position, the rules require swimmers to line up in the water facing the starting end of the course with both hands on the starting grips or the gutter. (Sometimes the horizontal bar with the starting grips is too high for some swimmers, so this rule means that it is acceptable to grab the gutter or the end wall if there is no gutter.)

What about the position of the feet at the start? There is no explicit requirement for the feet to be placed under the surface of the water, but the toes cannot extend over the lip of the gutter and swimmers may not bend the toes over the lip of the gutter, before or immediately following the start. (What if there is no gutter? In "flat wall" pools with no gutters, we interpret this rule to mean that the toes cannot extend over the edge of the pool deck.)

Upon the "take your mark" command, swimmers may assume any position that does not violate these rules regarding feet, hand, or starting position.

The Stroke
The rules say that swimmers must "push off on the back and continue swimming on the back throughout the race". The rules also say that "some part of the swimmer must break the surface of the water throughout the race, except that it shall be permitted for the swimmer to be completely submerged during the turn and for a distance of not more than 15 meters after the start and after each turn". This means that swimmers are permitted to kick underwater (any style of kick) after the start and after each turn, but the head must break the surface of the water within 15 meters.

Sometimes people ask if different styles of backstroke are permitted. What about "double arm" backstroke or what some of us might have learned as "elementary backstroke" with a breaststroke kick? The rule only requires that a swimmer remain on the back throughout the race (except for the turn), so any stroke or kick variation is permitted as long as swimmers remain on the back.

Many swimmers swim backstroke with a lot of body rotation. How far can a swimmer rotate along the body axis? In our glossary, we define "on the back" as meaning "at or past the vertical towards the back", so rotating up to 90 degrees is permitted throughout the race. Kicking on the side is permitted off of starts and turns as long as the swimmer does not rotate past the vertical towards the breast.

The Turn
The backstroke turn is sometimes complicated to describe. There is a pretty straightforward rule that "some part of the swimmer must touch the wall" upon completion of each length of the race. That means that an "old school" open turn is still permitted with a hand touch (or a head touch - ouch!). The swimmer can turn in any manner desired once a legal touch is made as long as the swimmer is still on the back when the feet leave the wall after the turn.

What about a backstroke flip turn? Of course, a backstroke flip turn is also legal and commonly used during competition. Swimmers are permitted (not required) to rotate past the vertical towards the breast only during the turn. Once the swimmer has rotated towards the breast, one immediate continuous single arm pull or simultaneous double arm pull may be used to initiate the turn.

Now here is the important part of the rule that sometimes trips people up: "Once the body has left the position on the back, any kick or arm pull must be part of the continuous turning action". By the time the swimmer has turned and then completed the one permitted arm pull, the swimmer must initiate the turn. Any kicking into the wall or gliding into the wall without initiating the turn is an infraction. Any additional pulling is also an infraction. (This is one area of the rules where there are still some differences between organizations. High School and NCAA rules permit kicking and gliding into the wall.)

What if I turn over, leaving a position on the back, intending to do a flip turn, but then touch the wall with my hand instead? Since the rules only say that some part of the swimmer must touch the wall, if there was no other independent glide, kick, or arm pull, this action is legal as long as the swimmer touches the wall during the one allowed continuous arm pull. However, if the swimmer takes another arm pull to make it to the wall, that would be an infraction.

The Finish
Finally, the rules say that the swimmer must touch the wall while on the back. No turning over or around to look for the wall!

Many swimmers dive backwards for the finish in an effort to finish hard and reach for the wall. What if this technique results in the swimmer being completely submerged before the finish? Since the rule says that some part of the swimmer must break the surface of the water, it would be an infraction if the official observes that the entire body is underwater. Generally, officials must make this observation while observing the swim before shifting their gaze to observe the touch itself. It needs to be pretty clear that absolutely no part of the body - not even a toe - is breaking the surface of the water. Most swimmers who dive for the wall will have the head, arm, and upper body submerged, but the feet remain above the water surface.

Charles Cockrell
USMS Rules Committee Chair

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