The history of backstroke swimming

About the Sport

Backstroke swimming developed as an offshoot of front crawl, with swimmers copying the overarm technique on their backs.

One of the most important developments in the history of backstroke was made in the late 1930s when Australian swimmers began to bend their arms for the underwater phase of the stroke.

This new technique was faster than using the traditional straight arm to pull through the water and was quickly adopted as the standard style for competitive backstroke swimming.

Another watershed moment in the history of backstroke swimming came at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

USA’s David Berkhoff qualified for the Games using a backstroke start known as the ‘Berkhoff blast-off’, where he would use a dolphin kick underwater for as long as possible, swimming faster than on the surface of the water.

The 100m Backstroke final in Seoul saw the three medallists – Japan’s Daichi Suzuki, USA’s David Berkhoff and USSR’s Igor Polianski – all swim between 30m and 35m of their first length underwater with a dolphin kick.

World governing body FINA reacted by restricting the distance a swimmer could remain submerged at the start of each length, initially to 10m, then in 1991 to 15m.

However, a year later, FINA changed the restrictions on backstroke turns, allowing swimmers to touch the wall using any part of their body rather than only their hand (although for finishes, backstrokers still need to touch with their hand).

It quickly became commonplace for backstroke swimmers to flip on to their front as they approach the wall, spin quickly underwater and touch the wall with their feet, kicking off for their next length.

The history of backstroke: The Olympic Games

Backstroke was included in the Olympic Games for the first time as a 200m event for men at the Paris Olympics in 1900.

A 100 yard Backstroke race was held instead in St Louis in 1904 (the only Olympic Games to have been contested in a 50 yard pool) before the 100m Backstroke took over in 1908.

The 100m Backstroke remained the only men’s backstroke race available at the Olympics until the 200m Back was re-introduced at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

The first women’s backstroke event at the Olympics was the 100m at the 1924 Games in Paris while the women’s 200m Backstroke was added to the Olympic schedule at the 1968 Games in Mexico City.

The history of backstroke. Competitive Olympic backstroke distances.

While only the 100m and 200m Backstroke are contested at the Olympic Games, a 50m Backstroke event is held at World and continental levels.

England’s Liam Tancock set the reigning 50m Backstroke world record of 24.04 on the way to the first of his two World Championship crowns in 2009.

Another English swimmer, Gemma Spofforth, set the existing 100m Backstroke world record of 58.12 to win the world title in 2009.

English Olympic backstroke medallists

There have been just six English medallists in the history of backstroke events at the Olympic Games with Herbert Haresnape the first – and only male – on the list with 100m Backstroke bronze at the London Games in 1908.

Judy Grinham is the only English swimmer to have won Olympic gold for backstroke, winning the 100m Back title at the 1956 Games in Melbourne.

Margaret Edwards won bronze in the same race to join her British and English teammate on the podium in Melbourne.

  1. London 1908 – Herbert Haresnape – 100m Backstroke bronze
  2. Paris 1924 – Phyllis Harding – 100m Backstroke silver
  3. Amsterdam 1928 – Joyce Cooper – 100m Backstroke bronze
  4. Melbourne 1956 – Judy Grinham – 100m Backstroke gold
  5. Melbourne 1956 – Margaret Edwards – 100m Backstroke bronze
  6. Rome 1960 – Natalie Steward – 100m Backstroke silver