Types of Races in Competitive Swimming

The butterfly is one of four competitive swimming strokes.
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Swimming was a part of the first modern Olympics in 1896, when competitors were dropped off in the Mediterranean to swim to shore. Since the 1908 London games, these races have been conducted in swimming pools. Swimming was one of the first sports to allow women to compete. Today, it is an international sport, governed by universal rules and star swimmers -- men and women -- who compete in all types of races.

Five Races

    There are five types of swimming races, one for each of the four basic strokes and a medley combining the strokes. Strokes are backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle, which is generally a front crawl. An individual medley starts with butterfly, then progresses through backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. A medley relay begins with backstroke, then moves to breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle. Freestyle relays are 200 and 400 meters, with four swimmers per team using the same stroke.


    Swimming pools are measured in either yards or meters; some combine distances using bulkheads to alter the configuration. Olympic-style races are conducted in 50-meter indoor or outdoor pools, called long courses. Most indoor pools are short courses, spanning 25 yards or meters.


    Race distances are 50, 100, 200 and 400 meters for individuals, with longer events of 800 meters for women and 1,500 meters for men. Individual medleys, in which one swimmer does all four strokes, are 200 and 400 meters for both men and women. Those same distances are used for team relays.

Age Groups

    USA Swimming and most governing bodies worldwide maintain age group programs, with competitors divided by ages. Age groups start at 10 and younger, and go up to 17 or 18. They then shift into a master's area in which there are no age limits. Race types and distances are the same for all age groups. Some meets include male-female relays, in which men and women divide the strokes.

Open Water

    Swimmers also compete in open water events in lakes, oceans and seas. There are no records kept for these events because the conditions vary so widely. Distances generally are 5, 10 and 25 kilometers, although some are as short as 200 meters and others as long as 88 kilometers. The first Olympic open water competition was a 10-K event in Beijing in 2008.

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