The front crawl, or forward crawl, is a swimming style usually regarded as the fastest of all the styles developed. It is one of two long axis strokes, the other being the backstroke. Unlike the backstroke, butterfly, and breaststroke, the front crawl is not regulated by FINA, but it is nearly universally swum in freestyle competitions. This style is sometimes referred to as the Australian crawl or the American crawl, although these are, in fact, more specific variants, both of which qualify as front crawl strokes. This style is also sometimes called freestyle although it is technically only one of the freestyle strokes.
The front crawl has been in use since ancient times. In the Western world, the front crawl was first seen in a competition held in 1844 in London, where it was swum by native North Americans, who easily defeated the British breaststroke swimmers. However, the English gentlemen considered this style, with its considerable splashing, to be barbarically "un-European"; the British continued to swim only the breaststroke in competition.
Sometime between 1870 and 1890, John Arthur Trudgen learned the front crawl from native South Americans during a trip to Argentina (the exact date is disputed, but is most often given as 1873). However, Trudgen mistakenly used (in Britain) the more common sidestroke (scissor) kick instead of the flutter kick used by the Native Americans. This hybrid stroke was called the Trudgen. Because of its speed the stroke quickly became popular.
The Trudgen was improved by the Australian-born son of swimming teacher, "Professor" Richard (Fred, Frederick) Cavill, champion swimmer Richmond (Dick) Cavill (1884–1938). While he and his brother "Tums" developed the stroke independently, they were later inspired by Alick Wickham, a young Solomon Islander resident in Sydney who swam a version of the crawl stroke that was popular in his home in the Roviana Lagoon. This modified Trudgen stroke became known as the Australian crawl. American swimmer Charles Daniels made modifications to a six beat kick thereby forming the American crawl. With minor modifications, this stroke is the front crawl used today. The front crawl has become the fastest stroke in all of swimming.
The first position for front crawl or Freestyle is the streamline position, that is to say on the stomach with both arms stretched out to the front and both legs extended to the back.
The arm movement alternates from side to side. In other words, while one arm is pulling/pushing, the other arm is recovering. The arm strokes also provide most of the forward movement. The move can be separated into three parts, the pull, the push, and the recovery.
From the initial position, the arm sinks slightly lower and the palm of the hand turns 45 degrees with the thumb side of the palm towards the bottom. This is called catching the water and prepares for the pull. The pull movement follows a semicircle, with the elbow higher than the hand, and the hand pointing towards the body center and downward. The semicircle ends in front of the chest at the beginning of the ribcage.
The push pushes the palm backward through the water underneath the body at the beginning and at the side of the body at the end of the push.
Sometime after the beginning of the recovery of the one arm, the other arm begins its pull. The recovery moves the elbow in a semicircle in a vertical plane in the swimming direction. The lower arm and the hand are completely relaxed and hang down from the elbow close to the water surface and close to the swimmer's body. The beginning of the recovery looks similar to pulling the hand out of the back pocket of a pair of pants, with the small finger upwards. Further into the recovery phase, the hand movement has been compared to pulling up a center zip on a wetsuit. The recovering hand moves forward, with the fingers trailing downward, just above the surface of the water. In the middle of the recovery one shoulder is rotated into the air while the other is jumping backwards to avoid drag due to the large frontal area which at this specific time is not covered by the arm. To rotate the shoulder, some twist their torso while others also rotate everything down to their feet.
Beginners often make the mistake of not relaxing the arm during the recovery and of moving the hand too high and too far away from the body, in some cases even higher than the elbow. In these cases, drag and incidental muscle effort is increased at the expense of speed. Beginners often forget to use their shoulders to let the hand enter as far forward as possible. Some say the hand should enter the water thumb first, reducing drag through possible turbulence, others say the middle finger is first with the hand precisely bent down, giving thrust right from the start. At the beginning of the pull, the hand acts like a wing and is moved slower than the velocity of the swimmer while at the end it acts like an oar and is moved faster than the velocity of the swimmer.
A recreational variation of front crawl involves only one arm moving at any one time, while the other arm rests and is stretched out at the front. This style is called a "catch up" stroke and requires less strength for swimming. This is because the immersed length of the body is longer and more streamlined. This style is slower than the regular front crawl and is rarely used competitively: however, it is often used for training purposes even by professional swimmers, as it increases the body's awareness of being streamlined in the water. Total Immersion is a similar technique.
The leg in the initial position bends very slightly at the knees, and then kicks the lower leg and the foot downwards similar to kicking a football. The legs may be bent inward slightly. After the kick the straight leg moves back up. A frequent mistake of beginners is to bend the legs too much or to kick too much out of the water.
Ideally, there are 6 kicks per cycle, although it is also possible to use 8 kicks, 4 kicks or even 2 kicks. Franziska van Almsick, for example, swims very successfully with four kicks per cycle. When one arm is pushed down the opposite leg needs to do a downwards kick also, to fix the body orientation, because this happens shortly after the body rotation. Alternatively, front crawl can also be swum with a butterfly kick, although this reduces the stability of the swimming position. A breaststroke kick with front crawl arms (the Trudgen) is awkward, because the breathing pattern for front crawl needs a rotation, yet a breaststroke kick resists this rotation.
Standard swimming calls for one breath every third arm recovery, i.e., every 1.5 cycles, alternating the sides for breathing. Some swimmers instead take a breath every cycle, i.e., every second arm recovery, breathing always to the same side. Most competition swimmers will breathe every other stroke, or once a cycle, to a preferred side. However some swimmers can breathe comfortably to both sides. Janet Evans could do this. Sprinters will often breathe a predetermined number of times in an entire race. Elite sprinters will breathe once or even no times during a fifty meter/yard race. For a one hundred yard race sprinters will often breathe every four strokes, once every two cycles, or will start with every four strokes and finish with every two strokes. In water polo, the head is often kept out of the water completely for better visibility and easier breathing, at the price of a much steeper body position and higher drag.
Side-to-side movement is kept to a minimum: one of the main functions of the leg kick is to maintain the line of the body.
The start is the regular start for swimming. After entering the water a brief gliding phase follows, followed by an underwater flutter kick or butterfly kick. After a maximum of 15 m the swimmer has to surface.
A variant of the tumble turn is to make a somersault earlier with straight legs, throwing the legs toward the wall and gliding to the wall. This has a small risk of injury because the legs could hit another swimmer or the wall.
For the finish the swimmer has to touch the wall with any body part, usually the hand. Most swimmers sprint the finish as quickly as possible, which usually includes reducing their breathing rate.