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The history of Individual Medley Swimming: racing distances at the Olympic Games

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Medley Swimming is a combination of four different swimming styles: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle – into one race. This distance is either swum by one swimmer as Individual Medley (IM) or by four swimmers as a Medley Relay.


Individual Medley consists of a single swimmer swimming equal distances of four different strokes within one race.

«IM» at the competition program is short for Individual Medley. This is referring to the four competitive strokes:

  •   Butterfly

  •   Backstroke

  •   Breaststroke

  •   Freestyle


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Photo: © Andrzej Waszkewicz / SWIM


Short info from history of Individual Medley Swimming:

Before butterfly was established as an individual stroke in 1952, individual medley races comprised of just three strokes and were typically swum over three or six lengths.

It was in a 150 yard individual medley race – known at the time as “three-stroke medley” – that one of the first examples of butterfly arm technique was used as Henry Myers used an over arm recovery for the full length of his opening breaststroke leg.


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A butterfly stroke was added to individual medley swimming races in the 1950s with races taking the form of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, then freestyle.

Unlike in individual freestyle races, you cannot swim butterfly, backstroke or breaststroke in the freestyle leg of an individual medley race.

At the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, American Ryan Lochte swam to his fourth consecutive 200m Individual Medley title using a backstroke dolphin kick off the wall for his freestyle leg before turning to surface on his front and swim front crawl for the rest of the length.

While officials did not disqualify Lochte at the Championships, world governing body FINA reacted by announcing the technique would be disqualified at future events as the American was technically starting the leg by swimming backstroke, irrespective of whether he was underneath or on the surface of the water.

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Photo: © Andrzej Waszkewicz / SWIM


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Currently in competition, the Individual Medley is contested in 3 different distances:

  •   100 meters (short course only) or yards

  •   200 meters or yards

  •   400 meters or yards


For example, 100m Individual Medley is a swimming event consists of one 25-meters lap of each stroke (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle), and as such is only recognized in short course (25m) pools.

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In Individual Medley events, a single swimmer competes using all four strokes in the following order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle.


There are also 2 Medley Relays that incorporate all 4 strokes (1 swimmer / 1 stroke):

  •   200 Medley Relay

  •   400 Medley Relay


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Individual Medley Swimming at the Olympic Games


The Individual Medley events at the Olympic Games are the only pool swimming events which have always been contested over the same distances for both women and men.

A 400m Individual Medley has been held at every Games since the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo while men’s and women’s 200m Individual Medley events were contested in 1968 and 1972, then at every Olympics since 1984.

Olympic Medley races and events in the program of the FINA World Aquatics Championships (LC) are only contested in 50-metres pools (Long Course).

  •   •   •   •   •

In the Short Course Championships (25-meters pool) – Medley races are organized at distances of 100, 200, 400 meters.


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Individual Medley Swimming is a great improve your feel of the water: each stroke works your muscles differently and engages different energy systems. Even if you only race freestyle, swimming IM will make you a faster swimmer overall.


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