Swimmers of all levels likely have a vivid memory of their first disqualification – and all of the emotions that come with it. From the right way to turn during butterfly to the wrong way to do a backstroke start, swimming has lots of rules (check out the USA Swimming Rulebook for the whole list!). If you break one of these rules during a race, you’ll get disqualified (DQ’d) and your swim won’t count.
To avoid disqualification, practice legal swimming technique during every workout and make sure you understand the rules for your races. Building proper muscle memory will reduce the chance that you slip up and get disqualified during those races you train so hard for!
What Does it Mean to Get Disqualified?
When you get disqualified, your race or relay is ineligible for placing, points, awards or time qualifications. Essentially your swim doesn’t count at all, even if you swam a personal best or won your heat!
Most swim meets have officials around the pool and behind each lane to monitor and flag swimmers who are disqualified. If you are DQ’d, you will be allowed to finish your race. The official will talk to you afterward and let you know why you were disqualified.
Related: Swim Meet Terminology & FAQs
The DQ only applies to an individual race. If you have more races after the event you were disqualified in, you can still swim them.
In relays, the entire relay team is disqualified if one swimmer breaks a rule.
Now that we understand what it means to get DQ’d, let’s dive in to the most common ways we’ve seen swimmers get disqualified.
General Swimming Rules
These general rules apply to all four strokes and relays.
In starts and turns for butterfly, backstroke and freestyle, swimmers cannot go more than 15 meters underwater. Some part of the body must break the surface at the 15-meter mark or the swimmer will be disqualified. Most lane lines have a marker that signifies the 15-meter mark.
This rule does not apply to breaststroke.
In an individual event (and the first leg of a relay), a false start occurs when you begin your start before the buzzer goes off. Automatic DQ!
Any flinch or movement after the official says “take your mark” can be considered a false start.
For the second, third and fourth legs of a relay, you will false start if your feet leave the block before your teammate has touched the wall. In relay starts, you are allowed to be moving before your teammate touches the wall – you just can’t jump off the block!
Pulling on the Lane Line
Pulling on the lane line is a no-go as well. If you accidentally bump into the lane line, you likely won’t be disqualified. If an official can see that you are deliberately using the lane line for forward propulsion, you will be DQ’d.
Touching the Bottom
If the pool you are racing in is shallow, pushing off the bottom (or using the bottom for any sort of forward motion) is not allowed.
If you need to stop in the middle of the race and you stand up, that’s most likely ok, as long as you stay in one place while you rest and push off of the wall (not the bottom) when you begin swimming again.
Similarly, if you accidentally touch the bottom during your underwaters, you won’t be disqualified since you aren’t using the bottom to increase your propulsion.
Each stroke has its own turn rules. Make sure you know them (and practice them well) before race day!
In butterfly and breaststroke turns and finishes, you must do a simultaneous, two-hand touch. Your hands must touch the wall at the same time at, above or below the surface of the water. If one hand touches the wall before the other, you’ll be DQ’d!
The 2-hand touch applies to the butterfly and breaststroke portions of the Individual Medley as well.
In backstroke, the flip turn must be one, continuous turn. You are allowed to turn onto your stomach and take one freestyle arm stroke before flipping. Take more than one stroke, and you are disqualified!
You must push off the wall on your back.
Related: How to Do a Freestyle Flip Turn
Freestyle turns have the most wiggle room. The rule? You must touch the wall with some part of your body at the end of each length.
In addition to the general rules outlined above, each stroke has its own set of rules. Here, we outline some of the basics.
- Kick: Your feet must kick together. If you swim butterfly with a scissor or breaststroke kick, you will be disqualified.
- Arms: Your arms must move simultaneously throughout the stroke. The arms must also recover over the water.
- Body Position: You must swim the race and & finish on your stomach. During turns, you must be at or past the vertical, leaning toward the breast (meaning you can’t push off on your back or too far to one side).
- Start: You will be disqualified if you grip your toes over the edge of the gutter or touchpad. Your feet must be underwater on the wall.
- Body Position: You must stay on your back for the duration of the race (minus your turns).
- Finish: You must finish the race on your back. You may fully submerge your body in the last five yards or meters of the race.
- Pull Out: You can do one pull-out per length. You are allowed one full arm pull, one dolphin kick and one breaststroke kick before breaking the surface and starting your stroke. Most swimmers get DQ’d because they do more than one dolphin kick.
- Kick: Like butterfly, your feet must kick simultaneously. No scissor kick!
- Arms: Your arms must move simultaneously.
- Stroke Cycle: You must adhere to the following stroke cycle/order : 1 arm stroke + 1 leg kick. Your head must break the surface with each stroke.
Technically, you can swim any stroke in a freestyle event. If you choose to swim a different stroke, the rules of that stroke apply. Note that if you choose to swim breaststroke in the 50 freestyle, your time will still be counted for the 50 free.
With those loose requirements, freestyle doesn’t have too many major rule to follow. The main one (Aside from the ones we have covered above): some part of your body must break the surface of the water by the 15-meter mark, and as you swim, some part of your body must remain above the water.
In IM races, the rules for each individual stroke apply. You must swim the strokes in the following order to avoid being DQ’d:
- IM Order (individual event): Butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle
- IM Order (relay): Backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle
A Few Lesser Known DQ’s
Keep these lesser-known transgressions in mind during your swim meets to avoid getting disqualified!
Deliberate Delay or Misconduct
Your actions outside of the pool may get you disqualified! If you are late to your heat, interfering with another swimmer or using foul language toward other swimmers, you risk disqualification. Be a good sport and respect your fellow swimmers, and you should be fine.
Many elite swimmers use the crossover turn to transition from backstroke to breaststroke in IM races. If they rotate past 90 degrees toward their stomach before their hand hits the wall, they will be disqualified because they didn’t finish the backstroke length on their back. Learn how to do a crossover turn here >
15m Rule Re-submersion
As we mentioned earlier, swimmers can’t stay underwater past 15 meters in butterfly, backstroke and freestyle. After the 15-meter mark, some part of the body must remain above the water for the duration of the race, including the finish.
Backstroke finishes have different rules. In a backstroke race, swimmers may fully submerge their bodies in the last five yards or meters of a race.
When you swim a relay, your team will be entered into the relay in a specific swimming order. If you swim in a different order, you can be disqualified.
This also applies to stroke order in medley relays. You must swim backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle, in that order.
In elite competition, swimmers must wear suits that comply with FINA’s standards. Read the full FINA standards here >
For men, the suit cannot extend above the belly button or go below the knee. For women, the suit cannot have a zipper, cover the neck or extend past the shoulders. If you wear a suit that is not FINA-approved, you will be disqualified. When shopping, most swimsuit brands will state whether the suit is FINA-approved.
While all of these rules may seem overwhelming, don’t stress too much. Trust your training and go into each race with a positive attitude. Have fun and swim fast!
If you need help training for an upcoming race, download the MySwimPro app! Get a personalized Training Plan with Guided Workouts tailored to your speed, skill level and goals.