The Backstroke Rule That Isn’t A Rule

(Updated at the end)…new rule for 2023!

The final stretch for the wall on a backstroke race has been a critical part of the stroke since it’s infancy. On a race that is done backwards this can be a bit tricky. Many races are won or lost on the touch.

On the backstroke finish a swimmer reaches for the wall on their back. This could be described as a ‘dive’ for the wall. Diving on your back is done with a dolphin-like action as your arm extends over your head. In the past the main rule was a swimmer must be on their back and not pass 90degrees to be considered ‘on their breast’.

But there is a fly in the ointment. After the 15m rule was introduced for the start after the 1988 Olympics for the the start and turns, the finish unexpectedly changed too.


According to the 15m underwater rule, on start and turns, the wording stated that a swimmer had to be on the surface after 15m and thus not go back underwater. That rule then circumvented those who might try to come up to the surface and go back underwater. Although re-submerging was not happening, the rule-makers did not want backstroke to return to the underwater race it had become.

This rule then inadvertently impacted the finish.

At the finish, on the dive for the wall, a backstroker will likely submerge as they touch. Watching the final lunge, or dive, for the finish, in international events, you’d note that many (if not all) the swimmers submerge momentarily as they touch.

At a competition for young age group swimmers I had a swimmer disqualified for going under water on the touch. I was gobsmacked! This was not a rule. I was certain. The recently qualified Referee gleefully showed me the rule after the competition. I did not want to spend £50 to make a written protest (another bugbear of mine).

Since I felt this was a misinterpretation of the rule I emailed and subsequently met with the National Referee who tutors the Referees.

Again I was gobsmacked! The new Referee was correct (indeed that made me wrong…oh dear). But I asked about international swimmers who seemed to break this rule and it was true; they do go underwater on the touch but this is overlooked.

How is this fair? Expert swimmers don’t need to follow this rule but young swimmers do?

Looking into this I found that the way to make a rule change is a very long drawn out process. So I didn’t. Instead, like other coaches of non-international swimmers, I teach my swimmers to flick their feet up on the finish. But this ridiculous rule, that’s not really a rule, continues, and newly qualified Referees can gleefully disqualify those swimmers who don’t know, while the experienced Referees turn a blind eye.


The rule that isn’t really a rule is now officially not a rule in 2023. On the touch on the backstroke you can go underwater as you touch the wall. All those traumatised kids, disqualified for a vague rule, can now touch as they like. Happy days.


About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at:
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