You will often hear the terms ‘front crawl’ and ‘freestyle’ used interchangeably, but are they the same thing?
The front crawl and freestyle are not the same thing.
The front crawl is a swim stroke and freestyle is a category of swim competition where you can use any swim stroke you like. Since the front crawl is the fastest stroke, swimmers typically use it in freestyle competitions. As a result, the front crawl has become known as the freestyle.
The vast majority of swimmers will swim the front crawl as part of the freestyle competition since it is the fastest and most efficient of strokes.
As a result, nearly all swimmers and coaches refer to the front crawl as the freestyle in modern times.
In this article, I want to dig deeper into this and share the FINA rules on what they mean by freestyle so you can fully understand what each term means.
Is The Front Crawl The Same As Freestyle?
The front crawl is a swimming stroke that is used to propel a swimmer forward through the water. It is often considered the most efficient swimming stroke and is widely used in competition.
The front crawl is fast and powerful, with the swimmer’s head in the water and hands arching forward to pull the body through the water.
Freestyle is the name of a category of swimming competition. In theory, you can swim any stroke you like in the freestyle competition as long as it meets the swim competition rules.
Can You Swim Breaststroke In The Freestyle Event?
In theory, you can swim breaststroke, or any other swimming stroke, in the individual freestyle event. (There are rules about medley events where this does not apply, so you need to check the competition rules for your event.)
But if you decide to swim breaststroke while everyone else is swimming the front crawl, you will lose.
This is why the terms front crawl and freestyle have become synonymous. If you swim anything but front crawl during a freestyle event, you will swim a slower stroke.
As a result, the front crawl is nearly always used in the freestyle event, hence why the front crawl swim stroke has become known as the freestyle in modern times.
What Does Freestyle Swimming Mean?
The following is the actual definition of freestyle swimming as provided by FINA, which is the international swimming association.
Freestyle means that in an event so designated, the swimmer may swim any style, exceptFINA Swimming Rules
that in individual medley or medley relay events, freestyle means any style other than backstroke,
breaststroke or butterfly.
To put that another way, within the category of freestyle swimming, the swimmer can use any style of swim stroke they like, hence the term “freestyle”.
As mentioned, typically swimmers will choose the front crawl in order to win as it is so fast and powerful.
There is a caveat, however, in the second part of the rules, which states that although a swimmer can swim any stroke they like, this is only in the individual swimming freestyle category.
When it comes to individual medley or medley relay events, freestyle means any swim style other than the backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly.
In theory, you can do any stroke you want, even one you made up as long as it meets the further following two rules:
Some part of the swimmer must touch the wall upon completion of each length and at the finish.FINA Swimming Rules
Some part of the swimmer must break the surface of the water throughout the race, except it shall be permissible for the swimmer to be completely submerged during the turn and for a distance of not more than 15 metres after the start and each turn. By that point, the head must have broken the surface.FINA Swimming Rules
When Did The Front Crawl Become Known As Freestyle?
Most swim coaches today will nearly always call the front crawl the freestyle. The terms have become so interchangeable that very few think about the semantics of the terms anymore.
I find it fascinating to learn the history of the terms, however, and when exactly the front crawl and freestyle became accepted as being the same thing, even though one is a swim stroke and one is a category of swimming competition.
Although there is evidence of humans swimming the front crawl swimming style going back thousands of years, the first recorded use of the name “front crawl” happened in the late 19th century when an Australian swimmer called Dick Cavill described the swimming style as like crawling through the water. [source]
I find it ironic that he described the fastest swim stroke learned as crawling, but from a spectator’s point of view, the swimmer appears to crawl through the water, especially when they have high elbows.
In the year 1922, Johnny Weissmuller swam the 100m freestyle competition, using the front crawl stroke in less than a minute. [source]
Perhaps this was the golden moment when the speed of the front crawl was revealed and thereafter, became increasingly more popular as the swim stroke of choice in the freestyle category.
What is the American Crawl & Australian Crawl?
To further complicate the terminology of swimming, there is the American Crawl & Australian Crawl.
These terms are rarely used in modern times, but I find it really interesting to know the history of swimming.
You could say that the Australian Crawl and American Crawl are variations of the modern front crawl, as swimmers in the early 19th century experimented with variations of over-arm strokes and kicks.
The Australian Crawl
According to information on Australian Screen, operated by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, the Australian crawl was developed by a schoolboy called Alick Wickham, who used a two-hand overarm stroke which gave the impression that he was “crawling” across the water. [source]
The Australian crawl is very different under the water, where the kick is more like a scissor kick, with a lot of power coming from the knee, kicking one knee in time with the opposite arm.
This style was very new at the time in Australia and was further developed into the modern front crawl.
To look at the wonderful history and evolution of the Australian Crawl, you can view a three-minute documentary here.
The American Crawl
Charles Daniels is credited as the originator of the “American crawl”. [source]
In essence, the American crawl is the modern front crawl stroke. Charles Daniels added a flutter kick to the overarm stroke, which is independent of the arms. This was new advancement in the late 1900s and was an evolution of taking the best bits of the front crawl styles that came before.
So, is front crawl and freestyle the same thing? In short, yes – but with a little more nuance.
The terms have become so interchangeable that we often forget their origins.
To be exact, you would use the term front crawl to describe the stroke and the term freestyle to describe the swimming category, but the terms have become interchangeable over time and today are widely accepted by swimmers as the being same thing.