Term of the Week: Swimming Edition

By Jack Belanger

For as much as I claim to know about sports, I will admit I am not expert when it comes to competitive swimming. This is probably the case for most sport fans. Outside of the Olympics, I can’t say I’ve watched many swim races. Plenty of people know that Michael Phelps pulled in eight gold medals at the 2008 Summer Olympics but, how many know a year earlier he had won seven gold medals at the 2007 World Championships. Taking it another step further, could you name which events Phelps actually won in 2008? Needless to say, swimming does not get the same attention in the U.S. as football, basketball, and baseball.

There were supposed to be 18 swimming events each for men and women for the now delayed 2020 Summer Olympics. In order to prepare if/when the games occur, I thought I would explain some of the individual races. For those who do swim competitively, I’m sure these are as basic as it gets, but for many such as myself, I had no clue what any of them referred to. 


While it seems pretty obvious that freestyle means that swimmers can choose any style of stroke, the most common stroke is the front crawl as it is the fastest stroke. During competitions some part of the swimmer must be above the water, the only expectation is starting the race and at each turn where swimmers can be completely underwater for 15 meters. At the Olympics the freestyle is swam at distances of 50, 100, 200, 400, and 1500 meters for individuals (the 800 meter will be added for the 2020 Olympics). There are also two freestyle relays that have swimmers go at 100 and 200 meters.

Photo Courtesy of CNN

Individual Medley:

Individual Medley (IM) races are set so that swimmers have to use four different strokes which consist of the butterfly, backstroke, breakstroke, and freestyle strokes in order. Medley races are the only time freestyle strokes are somewhat limited. During the medley, swimmers cannot use the butterfly, backstroke, or breaststroke for their freestyle. There are two IM events at the Olympics that are raced at 200 and 400 meters. Each stroke must be used for an equal distance. For instance, during the 200 m race, each stroke would only be used for 50 meters consecutively.

Medley Relay:

There is only one medley relay event in the Olympics where four swimmers each swim 100 meters using a different stroke. The same four strokes are used as the individual medley, but in a different order. For relays, the order goes backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle. The backstroke must be the first stroke used because swimmers must start in the water. If any of the other strokes were first used, swimmers could run the risk of hitting each other when transitioning to the backstroke. When beginning the race, a metal bar is hooked onto the side of the pool for the swimmer to hold onto before doing the backstroke.

Marathon Swim:

The 10 kilometer swim is one of the newer swimming events at the Olympics, being first held in 2008. While most swimming events are held at a pool, the 10 km marathon is the only swimming event that is held in open waters. The event is a freestyle competition where swimmers are allowed to switch between strokes. Instead of having individual heats, the race is held as a single mass-start.

While this is certainly far from a comprehensive list of swimming terms that are used at the Olympics, hopefully it helps those like me who were clueless about the different swimming events shown every four years. 

As always, if there are any sport terms or concepts that you want to be explained please leave a comment.

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