Backstroke Swim Rules In The Open Water

Backstroke Swim Rules In The Open Water

With swimmers from Africa and Europe to the Americas, Oceania and Asia doing more and more non-freestyle swims in the open water, the issue of how to define butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke in the open water has been a topic in the global open water swimming community for some time.*

The World Open Water Swimming Association developed an initial set of rules to govern these butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke swims and provide some guidance and official parameters to help swimmers, observers, and governing body officials and representatives.

While the most renowned backstroke-swimming open water athlete is American Tina Neill who is simply beyond incredible with her backstroke swims in the Catalina Channel and the English Channel, there are many others who have an itch to do backstroke in various bodies of water including Californians Tom Keller, Michael Chase and Jon Ennis.

It seems an increasingly larger number of swimmers are interested in swimming out of the traditional freestyle box in the open water, from Japan to South Africa.

While the various channel governing bodies and other governing bodies from Europe to the Americas have their own rules and interpretations of what constitutes a butterfly open water swim, a backstroke open water swim, and a breaststroke open water swim, the World Open Water Swimming Association has announced its first draft of its proposed backstroke regulations.

Comments and suggested modifications on the following rules are welcomed. Opinions on the following backstroke rules can be emailed to

WOWSA 11.1 – While open water swims are overwhelmingly completed doing freestyle, a small number of athletes attempt and complete open water swims, including marathon swims and channel swims, using backstroke. In order for a swim to be considered a Backstroke Swim, the entire distance must be swum backstroke as defined by the following rules:

WOWSA 11.2 – From the beginning of the first arm stroke after the start (either from shore or in the water) to the finish of the swim (either onshore or in the water), the body must be kept on the back to qualify as a Backstroke Swim. While the athlete is swimming, he is not permitted to roll onto the stomach at any time or take any freestyle arm strokes or leg kicks, or breaststroke arm strokes, or do sidestroke of any type. A swimmer is allowed to stop swimming in shallow water as he approaches the shoreline and walk up on shore to clear the water as an athlete swimming freestyle would do. However, if the finish is in the water, a swimmer must touch the finish pontoon or pad with their hand while they remain on their back.

WOWSA 11.3 – The normal position on the back can include a roll movement of the body up to, but not including 90° from horizontal. The position of the head is not relevant.

WOWSA 11.4 – Kicking may be done in any fashion as long as the athlete remains on his back during the swim.

WOWSA 11.5 – The athlete can stop swimming backstroke only during voluntary stops or feeding stops. During stops of any kind, the athlete must stay in the same spot and can tread water to rest or take fuel (food) or hydration (drink). They can stretch their arms, body, back, neck or legs, but they must stay in the same location.

WOWSA 11.6 – The exception of WOWSA 11.5 rule above is when a wave or wake crashes unexpectedly over the athlete causing the athlete to choke and/or swallow water. They can stop in this case and fix their goggles or catch their breath as long as they do not swim forward on their stomach or using any stroke other than backstroke.

WOWSA 11.7 – If the above rules are not adhered to, the swim will be defined as a standard (i.e., freestyle) swim.

Footnote: The butterfly swim rules are posted here. The breaststroke swim rules are posted here.

Recent discussions on the different stroke techniques in the open water are posted here at the Marathon Swimmers Forum.

Copyright © 2008 – 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association

Steven Munatones
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