Russian Language Blog

Swimming… in Russian Posted by on Jan 18, 2011 in language, Russian for beginners


Have you ever considered participating in «триатлон» [a triathlon]? I haven’t because… shhh… I can’t «плавать» [swim]. I know, I know, how could I, who grew up on the banks of the mighty «Волга» [Volga], not become at least a passable swimmer? Sometimes I wonder about this myself, but here I am nevertheless.

«В мою защиту» [In my defense], I did learn how to «держаться на плаву» [stay afloat] after that one time in «пионерский лагерь» [a youth summer camp] when I almost «утонуть» [to drown].

After that incident I begged my parents to get me «абонемент в бассейн» [a multi-visit pass to the swimming pool] and tried a few «уроки плаванья» [swimming lessons]. My haphazard splashing did improve to the level of a frantic «плаванье по-собачьи» [dog paddle] and a semi-confident «плаванье на спине» [backstroke]. This is my «вольныйстиль» [freestyle] combination, by the way. I continue to «плавать как топор» [lit: swim like an ax = swim like a stone] every time I attempt «брасс» [breaststroke] or «кроль» [front crawl].

Since then I spent years in Florida, a place with a ratio of «бассейны» [swimming pools] to «пловцы» [swimmers] is almost 1:1. Not to mention that I lived within walking distance from «пляж» [beach]. Apparently hanging out «где мелко» [on the shallow end] doesn’t improve one’s «навыки плаванья» [swimming skills].

Still, I love watching «пловцы» [male swimmers] and «пловчихи» [female swimmers] practice and compete. Would I ever «нырять головой вперёд» [dive head forward]? No way! When I dive, it’s always «солдатиком» [lit: soldier-style = rigid and feet first, resembling a soldier standing at attention]. In case you’re wondering, “cannonball” dive is «нырять бочкой» [lit. barrel dive].Would I ever propel myself forward using «баттерфляй» [butterfly stroke]? No! Last time I tried, «спасатель» [lifeguard] thought I was calling for help. But the biggest show-stopper for me, when it comes to training for «Олимпийские игры» [the Olympic Games] is that I refuse to keep my eyes open «под водой» [under water], whether I wear «очки для плаванья» [swimming goggles] or not.

But enough about me. After all, I think that most Russians are much better swimmers than I am. How do I know? Well, how else would you explain the fact that so many Russian men wear «плавки» [Speedo-style swimming trunks] «в бассейне» [at a swimming pool] and «на пляже» [at a beach].Thankfully, the younger generation of Russian men is now more into «пляжные шорты» [beach shorts]. While a positive change aesthetically, does it mean that Russians are becoming less «конкурентоспособный» [competitive] at swimming?

Next question: in line with the theme of «совместить приятное с полезным» [reconcile pleasure with duty], if you are into swimming, can you learn Russian «плавая» [while swimming]?

Since they haven’t yet invented some kind of swimming treadmills, printing and laminating this post won’t help. If you have «водонепроницаемый» [waterproof] iPod, you might download and listen to this Aquafit podcast (it’s primarily for women and not all issues are about swimming) or this personal podcast’s “swimming”-tagged posts.

Or you can memorize related vocabulary, including:

«плаванье» – swimming

«плыть», «плавать», «поплыть» [perfective aspect] – to swim (practice conjugating all three)

«открытый бассейн» – open air swimming pool

«закрытый бассейн» – indoor swimming pool

«бассейн» – swimming pool, but also refers to the swimming distance as in «я проплыл кролем 2 бассейна» [I swam 2 lengths of the pool using front crawl stroke].

«плавки» – man’s swimming trunks, short and tight (think Speedos)

«купальник» – woman’s swimming suit, also «купальный костюм»

«плавательный костюм» – swimsuit

«заплыв» – heat, as in swimming heat

«заплыв на 200 метров брассом» – a 200-meter breaststroke heat – this is just an example of using the word «заплыв»

«открытая вода» – open water, as in river, lake, ocean

«дистанция» – distance

«доска для плаванья» – kickboard

«ласты» – flippers

«нырять» (imperfective), «нырнуть» (perfective) – to dive

«прыжки в воду» – diving, both springboard and platform

«синхронное плаванье» – synchronized swimming

Any swimmers out there? Help me out by adding more vocabulary (in English, Russian or both) and swimming-related Russian-language resources – training manuals, podcasts, news articles, videos, etc.

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  1. Moonyeen:

    I think that both плыть and плавать are imperfective verbs (one way and non-one way.)
    When prefixed плыть becomes perfective.

    • yelena:

      @Moonyeen Moonyeen, thank you for catching this! I’ll fix it right away!

  2. Arkadiy B:

    2 comments right of the start –

    1) you need to try Total Immersion method, which will get you to extremely confident swimming in no time (under a week)
    2) I finally understand etymology of the Russian world “krolem”, as in “plavat’ krolem”, it is just mangled English “crawl” – Thank!

    btw, great articles – keep up amazing work!

    • yelena:

      @Arkadiy B Arkadiy, yes, кроль was a mystery to me too until I wrote this post 🙂 I actually always pictures a huge кролик (rabbit) swimming laps in the pool 🙂

  3. Moonyeen:

    Re: the vocabulary list – I think that both плыть and плавать are imperfective verbs (unidirectional and multi-directional). They become perfective when prefixed, (поплыть, приплыть, и.т.д.)

  4. Ken Martin:

    Many thanks. Now I can talk to the elderly Russians at the YMCA.

    • yelena:

      @Ken Martin Ken, did you see the explanation Olga Tarn left on the fanpage for why Russian men of certain generation prefer Speedos over something more conservative? And thank you so much for the topic idea!

  5. Minority:


    To tell the truth, when I saw article’s title I thought it would be about swimming in ice-hole ’cause it’s Epiphany now, so people go to the river as usual. And we’ve got a lot of ice-holes to dive into 🙂

    I don’t think I will try this thing one day… It’s damn cold in the street… Famous крещенские морозы..)

    • yelena:

      @Minority Funny, ’cause I did have a paragraph about моржи, but took it out during editing 🙂 Will have to write about this separately, I guess.

  6. David Roberts:

    1. Swimming. Yelena, if you can keep afloat and move inthe direction you want to go you’re so nearly there. You need to take the movements slowly and experiment with strokes to get the best thrust against the water. It’s all about hydrodynamics.

    2. I too picked up on плавать (swimming around) and плыть (swimming across the Mersey from Liverpool) both being imperfective. But this got me wondering about something else to do with verbs of motion. You know we can say “пошли!” to mean “let’s go” – I also noticed that in Ирония Судьбы, Надя says “пошел!” (go! to Женя) and “поехали!” (let’s go to a taxi driver).

    So, can we use the past forms of other verbs of motion, with an imperative meaning?

    3. Swimming in a pool for exercise can get boring, but if the pool is quite small or you swim quite fast you can count the lengths in the numbers of the language you’re learning. Russian is very good, because once you’ve got good at the numbers in the nominative you can move on to counting in the genitive, dative etc.

    • yelena:

      @David Roberts David, thanks for the reminder – I have to fix that perfective/imperfective thing in the post. Yes, some of the verbs of motion can be used as imperatives – пошел, поплыл, свалил, подписал, etc. In my opinion it’s the rudest way to tell someone to do something. Oh, and what a great idea to practice counting while exercising (any kind of exercise will work, I guess, not just swimming).

  7. Jim:

    How about the words for different aspects of “underwater” swimming? Snorkeling, SCUBA diving, tanks, regulator, snorkel, mask, wet suit, free diving, hold your breath, etc? Love your post. Always learn a lot!

    • yelena:

      @Jim Jim, will do and double thanks for the praise and for a great topic!

  8. Alan Sargeant:

    Enjoy these posts. This one particularly as I am a rtired swim teacher/coach/competition swimmer (Australian State level) and some of my friends were World Record Holders.

    Your are never too old to learn and for people who were afraid of the water the key is to relax and to kick with straight legs, breathing out through the nose.

  9. Mohammed:

    Thanks a lot!! This is exactly what i was looking for, as i am new to swimming pool in Russia. But i still don’t know what is “warm-up”, and “workout” in Russian. 🙁