Individual Medley Vs Medley Relay – What’s the Same & What’s Different?

Last Updated on August 1st, 2023

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The individual medley and the medley relay are some of the most intensive races in competitive swimming events. 

Performing one of the four main strokes as part of a team, like in the medley relay, is already a herculean task, but the individual medley puts everything on a single person.

Continue reading to learn more about what sets the individual medley and the medley relay apart, as well as some of their similarities.

Man wearing googles swimming - Individual Medley Vs Medley Relay - What's the Same & What's Different

What is the Difference Between the Medley Relay and the Individual Relay?

There are two main differences when it comes to the individual medley and the medley relay:


  • The number of participants in the race
  • The order of the strokes performed for each leg of the race


As the name “individual medley” implies, one contestant steps forward to execute all four of the main swimming strokes. In these events, the stroke order is:


  1. Butterfly
  2. Backstroke
  3. Breaststroke
  4. Freestyle


Meanwhile, the medley relay is completed by four swimmers on each team, each having to perform just one of the strokes as team members tag in the next swimmer. The order of strokes for the medley relay goes as:


  1. Backstroke
  2. Breaststroke
  3. Butterfly
  4. Freestyle


This difference comes about because the backstroke swimmers must start in the water, so having them go first prevents team members from accidentally blocking the backstroke swimmer as they tag them in.


What is the Same About the Medley Relay and Individual Relay?

Even though it may seem like the only similarity the individual medley and medley relay have is that both are done in the water of a pool, there are some other things that they share in common.

The most striking similarity between the two events is the length of some of these races. For example, the 400-yard individual medley is the same length as the 4×100-yard medley relay. 

In fact, both of these races happen to be Olympic events that have been competed in for several decades as well!


Man wearing googles swimming - Individual Medley Vs Medley Relay - What's the Same & What's Different


Which One is More Challenging?

The individual medley is arguably the more challenging of the two events because a single swimmer must complete everything that is done by a team of four in the medley relay.

Not only do swimmers in the individual medley have to complete at least four pool lengths in the various swimming strokes, but they must also perform the correct motion with their hands to qualify as completing each leg of the race.

For example, at the end of the breaststroke leg, swimmers must simultaneously put both hands on the pool edge before continuing the race and prevent disqualification.

On top of that, swimmers have to turn around in the pool, which is often the most complicated and slowest part of the individual medley. Again, this is something that medley relay swimmers don’t necessarily have to be concerned about.


Final Thoughts on Individual Medley vs Medley Relay

People may think that the individual medley and medley relay are too different to compare, but, in reality, the two events share some common ground. 

Depending on the length of the race, both are considered to be Olympic events and still involve the same strokes, just in a different order.

The most significant difference is whether a team of four members is competing or a single athlete who will have to carry the burden by themselves.