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What is Competitive Swimming?

Swimming the Breast Stroke

What does it take to become a world-beating swimmer like Michael Phelps, Rebecca Adlington or Katie Ledecky? And what exactly is involved in competitive swimming?

This article includes:

  • The History of Competitive Swimming
  • Terms used in Competitive Swimming
  • Competitive Swimming Stokes
  • What Happens at a Swimming Competition
  • Different Levels of Competition

A Brief History of Competitive Swimming

Swimming has been around since prehistoric times, so it seems likely that swimming contests may have also existed for a long time. However, competitive swimming, as we recognize it today, began in the 19th century, and the first modern Olympic games in 1896 included the sport. The earliest Olympic swimming races were held outside, and the first time the events were held in a pool was at the 1908 Olympics in London. Four years later, in Stockholm the first women’s event took place.

The earliest contests were usually in the breaststroke, although American John Trudgen copied a front crawl used by Native South Americans and introduced it to western contests. For a while the stroke was known as the trudgen. The British didn’t like it because it caused too much splashing, but the stroke was much faster than their preferred breaststroke, and eventually they were won over!

Before that, in the early 1800s, swimming contests were sometimes used in America to settle arguments over property!

Nowadays, there is a little less at stake in swimming competitions, though sometimes, when competitors are waiting nervously for their race, it may feel just as crucial.


Some Terms Used In Competitive Swimming

Event: a swimming race

Meet: a swimming contest, usually lasting for several hours and with several events

Gala: another word for a meet

Marshaling: this is the place where swimmers should gather before their race, and where a marshal will make sure they are in the correct race and go to the correct lane. If swimmers don’t get to marshaling on time they miss their race, so it’s important to know where it is.

Blocks: the little starting platform from which swimmers dive at the start of a race

Timekeeper: a timekeeper records the swimmer’s time. There are three timekeepers for each swimmer to be sure the times are accurate. Many pools now also have automatic timing.

Touchpad: the electronic pad a swimmer must touch at the end of the race for times to be recorded.

Entry time: the time a coach gives the meet organizers when entering a swimmer for an event. This is usually the fastest time a swimmer has previously achieved at an accredited meet.

PB: a personal best time

Heat Declared Winners: this means there are no finals. The winners will be the fastest swimmers from all the heats swum in an event.

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Types of Swimming Competitions

There are two main types of swimming competitions. These are:

Pool based swimming

Open water swimming

Pool Based Swimming Competitions

There are two categories of pool-based competitions. These are: Long Course or Short Course

Long Course competitions always take place in 50-meter pools.

Short Course competitions take place in 25 meter pools in almost all countries apart from the USA where they can be in either 25 meter or 25 yard pools.

Short course events have more turns and because a swimmer gets extra momentum when pushing off the wall, short course times are usually faster.

Swim Meet Events

Common distances swum in pool-based events are:

  • 50 meters
  • 100 meters
  • 200 meters
  • 400 meters
  • 800 and 1500 meters may also take place, but are less common, particularly for younger swimmers.
  • Some races for children aged 9 or under may be only 25 meters. This is particularly so for the butterfly.
  • Relay races are often included in meets, and are popular with children. Relays are usually swum by teams of four, each swimming a "leg." They vary in distance from four x 25 meters to four in junior races x 400 meters for for top competitions.

On the starting blocks

Competitive Swimming Strokes

These are strokes that are used in competitive swimming:


Freestyle is the most popular stroke, so anyone entering these can be sure of stiff competition.

Strictly speaking, freestyle means you can swim any stroke you want, but in practice freestyle races are always swum in front crawl. This is because it is the fastest stroke.


Breaststroke is the next most popular stroke. Breaststroke technique has developed significantly in recent years to make it much faster than it used to be.


Swimmers do not dive in to start backstroke races. Instead they start in the pool, holding onto a bar on the starting blocks.


Butterfly is the stroke most swimmers find challenging, so anyone who is naturally good at it has a good chance of winning races!

Individual Medley:

In an Individual Medley, swimmers swim all four strokes in this order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle. The shortest distance for an individual medley race is 100 meters.

Medley Relay:

In a Medley relay, four swimmers take part, with each swimming one stroke. The order is different to the Individual Medley, and starts with the backstroke, followed by butterfly. This is because as one swimmer touches the wall, the next dives in over their head, but in backstroke swimmers start in the pool.

Freestyle Relay:

In this relay all swimmers swim front crawl. Usually the fastest swimmer goes last.

Different Levels of Swimming Meet.

The type of meet available varies from country to country, but although names vary, the meet standards follow a general pattern. This list is by no means exhaustive, but gives idea of the type of competitions available.

International Meets:

As well as Olympics every four years there are several other international events.

FINA (Federation Internationale de Natation) governs international swimming competitions, and holds World Championships every 2 years – in odd years to avoid clashing with the Olympics. These include long course swimming events, open water events, synchronized swimming and water polo.

FINA also holds Short Course World Championships, and these are swimming only. These began in 1993.

A backstroke race

National Championships.

At these meets swimmers will have to be able to have fast enough qualifying times to enter. Professional swimmers hoping to compete in International Championships will take part in these meets.

Regional or District Meets (UK) or Zone/Sectional Meets (USA)

These cover a large part of the country, and standards will be high. Generally these are for older children or professionals.


These are the next step down from Regional meets.

Invitational Meets

These are meets organized by a swimming club or swimming body that sends out invitations to other clubs. Sometimes there can be a series of such meets, known as leagues.

Mini meets

These are popular in the UK and are contests for younger children, usually up to the age of 11. The rules are generally more relaxed than at other meets.

Graded Meets ( sometimes called Development Meets)

These are meets for children who are not the fastest for their age group, but who are keen to compete. Instead of having to be faster than a certain time to enter, swimmers must have an entry time slower than a specified time. Sometimes there is a time-band, stating fastest and slowest entry times.

In the race, swimmers are usually allowed to swim faster than their entry time, but again this will be within a certain limit. Swimmers who swim too fast for the grade will usually come home with a “speeding ticket.” This does not mean they are fined like a driver would be if caught speeding, it just means that they can now enter faster competitions!

Graded meets give swimmers a chance to get new entry times that might mean they can qualify for the more competitive meets. They also give swimmers a change to compete in a more relaxed and fun atmosphere.

The London Olympics Aquatic Centre

What Happens At A Swimming Meet


The first thing that happens is swimmers do a warm up of around 20 minutes. Boys and girls usually do separate warm-ups. The warm-up is a good chance to get used to an unfamiliar pool. There will also be some time set aside to practice diving off blocks. Because blocks vary in style from pool to pool, this is an important opportunity to prepare for the race.


About 2 events before a swimmer’s race, she will go to marshaling and give her name to the official Marshal. This may be someone from her swimming club or a different club.


Events are split into heats, and how many heats there are will depend on the number of swimmer and the number of lanes in the pool. Slower swimmers, or swimmers who have not been able to give an entry time will swim in the earliest heats. Usually the swimmers with the fastest entry times for each heat will swim in the middle lanes.

Signal to start

Before the race starts swimmers wait by their blocks. The race starter will blow a whistle or otherwise signal for the swimmers to step onto the blocks. Swimmers must then wait for the starting whistle before diving in. If a swimmer goes too early she will be disqualified.

Backstroke Start

In backstroke events, the first whistle is the signal for swimmers to jump into the pool and hold onto the starting bar.

Dolphin kick

After diving in or pushing off, swimmers usually begin freestyle, butterfly and backstroke races by swimming underwater doing dolphin kick. This is similar to the leg stroke of butterfly and can propel a swimmer quickly through the water. When first introduced there was no rule about how long a swimmer could swim dolphin kick underwater, but currently it is only allowed for the first 15 meters.


Age Groups

Swimming races are usually in bands of 2 years. These vary from country to country. In the UK it is usual for the youngest category to be 9 and under, followed by 10 – 11, 12 – 13 and so on; whereas in the USA, the youngest age group is more often 10 and under, followed by 11 – 12 and so on up to 17 – 18.

Masters Events

After age 18, swimmers who are not competing at national and international level, sometimes choose to compete in Masters Events. These are organized into 5-year age bands, with the first starting with 25 – 29, although people aged 18 – 24 can also compete in many Masters competitions.

Training for Pool Based Competitive Swimming

Training for pool based competitive swimming starts at a young age, with some swimming clubs accepting children as young as six, and some children also enter races at that age. However, 8 or 9 are more usual ages to start swimming competitively.

At a swimming club children will learn technique for all four major strokes. They will also learn how to dive off starting blocks, how to do tumble turns for freestyle and backstroke and how to do breaststroke and butterfly turns.

Training to be a competitive swimmer requires a lot of commitment and children as young as age 10 can be training 6 times a week for a total of up to 10 hours. By the time swimmers reach national and international level, they will train for more than 20 hours a week.

At junior level many more girls than boys are involved in swimming, but as they grow older the numbers do even out.


Swimming tips from Keri-Anne Payne

Open water swimming

Open water swimming events are usually longer than pool events, although races can be as short as 100 yards or as long as 88 kilometers. Races can be measured in either Imperial (yards and miles) or in metric. Even countries whose pool-based races are entirely in metric often have open water races in Imperial. (That 100 yards race takes place in Hyde Park in London on Christmas morning, and you can guarantee it will be cold!)

The most common distances for Open Water Swimming events are:

  • 5 km
  • 10 km
  • 25 km

At Beijing in 2008 was the first time this event was included in the Olympics, with a10 km open water swimming race. Maarten van der Weijden of the Netherlands won the men’s event, and Larisa Ilchenko of Russia won the women’s event. David Davies and Keri-Anne Payne of Great Britain won silver.

Training for Open Water Competitive Swimming

While open water swimmers do some training in open water, they also do much of their training in pools, learning special techniques to help cope with the colder temperatures in the open water. Open water swimmers usually wear wetsuits or triathlon suits to protect them from the cold.

Rebecca Adlington sets a new world record

A Career In Competitive Swimming

A career as a competitive swimmer is short, even compared to other sports. Rebecca Adlington was 19 when she set a new world record in the 800 meters freestyle, but by 2012, she was beaten to 3rd place and considered retirement. At 23 she is among the older swimmers! And Michael Phelps retired after the 2012 Olympics at the grand old age of 27!


Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on September 30, 2012:

Yes, Kitty, it's amazing that 23 is too old, isn't it? I read that swimmers are getting younger, just like gymnasts. I'm not sure why that is, maybe just because some start so early and then peak early too. The British swimmer Mark Foster did keep going till he was in his 30s but that's pretty rare.

Thanks for your comment.

Ann Leung from San Jose, California on September 29, 2012:

Age 23 is already old in competitive swimming career? That is very short. My kids love swimming too, but the chemical in the pool water makes their skin very dry and itchy sometimes. They are now doing exercises that don't require to be in the pool.

Thank you for sharing an interesting hub!

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on September 29, 2012:

Jools, both my kids have done some competitive swimming so much of this I knew already - though not the different meet categories in the US, or the history of front crawl! Your relative must have been very dedicated, as it's hard work to be a top swimmer. One of my girls showed early promise, but had too many ear infections and other illnesses to fulfil that potential. I think that happens a lot.

Thanks for your comment!

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on September 29, 2012:

Yvonne, Wow what a lot of research you put into this hub which has loads of info and some great photos. I think swimmers are incredibly dedicated and must really love their sport and there is a lot of competition for those who want to get really, really good at it, most of it starting early in the morning. A relative of mine was a world champion in the 'seniors' and 'veterans' class and she now trains swimmers and triathletes - she still swims every morning but no longer in competition.

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