Getting to know competitive swimming isn't as hard as it might seem. During the Olympics, it seems fast-paced because facts and statistics are flying. Now is the best time to "get your feet wet," (pun intended) before the Games start.
There are four strokes in competitive swimming that can be swum at various distances.
There's freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly, which can each be at a range of 50 to 1500 meters. Events can also be swum in yards, too, but for our purposes as well as the Olympic Games, we will discuss only in meters.
Freestyle is the most basic stroke in competitive swimming. It's also known as front crawl, or sometimes it's taught to kids as the forward swim.
You are face-down and horizontal in the water with your arms rotating like a windmill while your legs are doing a scissor-kick. You can breathe in this stroke into the space created by your arms being lifted out of the water by simply turning your head.
Freestyle is the stroke where you can do the most types of events: there are sprints (50-meter and 100-meter races), middle-distance events (the 200-meter), and the long-distance events (such as the 400-meter, 800-meter, or 1500-meter races).
This is the stroke also used in open-water competitions and marathon races. There are also freestyle relays, which are made up of four competitors that each swims either 100 or 200 meters.
The next stroke in competitive swimming that is typically taught and explained is backstroke. Essentially, it is freestyle on your back, but instead you are face-up floating in the water horizontally.
Again, your arms rotate around your head like a windmill while your legs and feet are doing a scissor-kick. Backstroke events range from sprints, the 50- and 100-meter races, to middle-distance, the 200-meters.
Backstroke is the only stroke in which you start the race from inside the water; the rest begin from the dives.
Breaststroke seems slow-going at first, but when done properly, it can be raced at high speeds. The stroke is performed horizontally in the water. Your legs do "frog kick" once per every time your arms circle in front of your face.
Imagine you are scooping a large bowlful of snacks into your mouth each time you take a stroke. As you're "scooping" the water, your shoulders and head lift out of the water. This is when you breathe in the stroke. You must breathe each time your head comes out of the water to be considered a legal breaststroke.
Breaststroke events can be swum in any length from 50 to 200 meters.
Butterfly is sometimes regarded as the hardest stroke in competitive swimming to learn and perform.
Your arms move together and rotate around your shoulders while the rest of your body does a dolphin kick. Keep your legs tightly pressed together - any separation would be an automatic disqualification.
The way to breathe during this stroke is to lift your chin out of the water as your arms come out of the water toward your front.
Butterfly events can be swum in any length from 50 to 200 meters.
The individual medley, or "I.M.," is all four competitive swimming strokes combined into one race, in a specific order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and then freestyle. This race starts from a dive. It can be swum in either a 200- or 400- meter capacity, with each stroke as either 50 meters or 100, respectively.
There are also medley relay races, where one person on the four-person relay team would each swim one stroke. In this case, the order is: backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle. The backstroke swimmer would begin in the water, but each other racer would enter the water from a dive. This is typically raced in either 200- or 400-meters.
Rachel is a journalism major at Hofstra University. She is currently a writer for Splash magazine and swam from age eight through graduation. She is a Senior Resident Assistant, member of several on-campus honor societies, and a lifeguard. This summer, she'll be working for NBC's Today Show in London during the Olympic Games.