This article is targeted toward people new to competitive swimming or those with physical limitations. Since part of the intended target audience is new swimmers, I’ll keep it fairly fundamental in terms of instruction, and explain terminology for people who aren’t highly familiar with the sport of swimming.
In individual events in competitive pool races, all swimmers start from one end of the pool. Typically at the “starting end” of the pool swimmers climb up to starting platforms in preparation to dive into the water. In researching for writing this article, I assumed that there were some rules about how high the starting platforms must be but didn’t know what they were. I was intrigued to find out that there is a slight discrepancy between the requirements for starting platforms for meters pools and yards pools.
On page 46 of the 2018 U.S. Masters Swimming Rule book it states the legal height of starting platforms. For long course and short course meter pools, the front edge of the platform must be between 0.50 meters (1 foot, 8 inches) and 0.75 meters (2 feet, 5.5 inches) above the surface of the water to be legal. For short course yards pools, it simply states that the front edge of the platform must not be higher than 2 feet, 6 inches above the surface of the water, but has no minimum height requirement.
These starting platforms are commonly referred to as “blocks” or “starting blocks” in the sport. Throughout the history of the sport, these platforms have evolved from large, flat concrete blocks with no special texturing into platforms, often with handles, that are mounted on a stainless steel base and are angled downward to the water. Newer blocks are typically made out of synthetic material with a rough surface like sandpaper to improve grip for the feet. The most modern blocks now also have what is called a “starting wedge” where swimmers can put their back foot to gain even more ability to propel themselves off the block into the water at greater velocity.
There are circumstances in which a swimmer may not have the desire to or may not be physically able to start from the blocks. Thankfully there is no requirement for all swimmers to start from the blocks! In fact, all backstroke events start in the water. From page 1 of the 2018 U.S. Masters Swimming Rule Book, the rules for in-water starts are as follows:
Each swimmer starting in the water must take the position on the wall with at least one hand in contact with the wall or starting platform and one foot in contact with the wall. A swimmer starting in the water may face any direction.
To slightly reword the above rule, a swimmer starting in the water must have one hand and one foot in contact with the wall. The hand may hold onto the starting platform, but the foot must be in contact with the wall. It doesn’t matter which direction the swimmer faces. For backstroke starts, swimmers generally face the block and away from the direction they will be swimming. Most people who start in the water for freestyle events typically face in the direction they will be swimming.
One important point to remember is that the toes cannot wrap over the edge of the gutter or touchpad. Wrapping your toes over the edge of the gutter or pad will result in a disqualification. So, place your foot comfortably somewhere below the edge of the gutter or pad.
Once the official has issued the starting command, simply push of the wall and start swimming! For an in-water start, probably the fastest way to get off the wall and maintain momentum is a backstroke start. However, a good backstroke start is physically challenging to perform so most people starting in the water for a non-backstroke event are probably going to opt to simply go under water and push off the wall in a streamline position. For more information about how to execute a good streamline for an in-water start, read more in this previous article here:
If for any reason you aren’t able to or are hesitant to start from the platform, remember that it is not a requirement. The important part is participating and having fun, so if going off the blocks isn’t possible or creates anxiety, choose an in-water start instead!
NOTE: This article was written for Alice Fasbender, my teammate and mentor, who has been asking me to write about this subject for a very long time!