What Is The Order Of Swim Strokes In The Medley?

Last Updated on August 1st, 2023

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Most of the races in competitive swimming are different distances of a single type of stroke, but the medley event garners special attention in events like the Olympics.

The swimming medley event is the combination of the four main swimming strokes into a single race. At least one pool length of backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle are swum either as a team or as an individual.

For individuals, it looks like a butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, then freestyle, while medley relays follow a backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle order.  

Keep reading to learn more about how swimming medleys are organized, why they are organized the way they are, and more.

Man swimming in blue pool - What Is The Order Of Swim Strokes In The Medley

What is the Order of the Strokes in the Individual Medley?

Swimmers who find themselves competing in the individual medley (or IM for short) perform at least one pool length of each of the four major strokes in a specific order.

The order of stroke for the individual medley goes as:


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


At first glance, the order of these strokes seems to have been done randomly, but this isn’t the case. Instead, the individual medley’s order of strokes was designed mostly to simplify the process and technique used to transition between strokes at the edge of the pool.

This greatly helps swimmers since turns and transitions are usually the slowest and poorest of all swimming technique executions.


Man swimming in blue pool - What Is The Order Of Swim Strokes In The Medley


What is the Order of the Strokes in the Medley Relay?

In the medley relay, four swimmers form a single team, and each one is tasked with swimming just one of the strokes for at least one pool length. Interestingly, the order of strokes for the medley relay is not the same as the order of strokes for the individual medley.

The order of strokes for the medley relay goes as:


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


This order takes the butterfly and shifts it to the third leg of the race, pushing up the backstroke and breaststroke in terms of when they are performed.

Aside from the backstroke being performed first, the order of strokes in the medley relay makes a lot of sense by going from the slowest swim stroke to the fastest stroke.  


Why are the Individual Medley & the Medley Relay Swam so Differently?

The main reason why the order of strokes is different between the individual medley and medley relay comes down to the backstroke. 

Because backstroke swimmers cannot dive off the edge of the pool and therefore must start in the water, their presence in the water becomes a problem for other team members.

If the backstroke were performed in any other position aside from being the first stroke, it would be possible for the incoming swimmer to be blocked or even collide with the next swimmer waiting to set off from the pool wall into the backstroke.


Can the Individual Medley be Swimming in Any Order?

Because only one swimmer is involved in the individual medley, you could theoretically swim the strokes in any order without fear of being blocked or collapsing and losing time.

However, this is not the case, and the individual medley must be swimming in order (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and then freestyle). This is a rule that must be followed in individual medley competitions if you wish to avoid disqualification.

The reasoning behind why such a rule exists is most likely because it would be difficult to ensure that all swimmers performed the approved methods for ending a leg of the medley and transitioning into the next, most notably how the hands reach the pool edge.


Final Thoughts on the Order of Swim Strokes in the Medley

While the individual medley and medley relay is similar in many ways, changing the order from butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle to backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and then freestyle can be confusing.

Be sure to pay attention and adhere to the stroke order to prevent disqualification or any possible injuries to yourself and your teammates.