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Swimming Vocabulary

This page covers the vocabulary and language of swimming by explaining its styles and the events you can see at the Olympic Games.

swimmingMost people like swimming for fun, but some people like swimming as a sport and take part in swimming competitions. These competitions usually include several different swimming styles; freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly and backstroke. Races are held over various distances, and all except medleys are for just one swimming style. While most competitions are held in a swimming pool, some are held in a lake or in the sea in what's called open water. Open water events are usually long races like the 10km marathon or part of an event like the triathlon that includes running and cycling as well as swimming.

Swimming Styles


This is the fastest style used in competitive swimming. It's based on a traditional swimming stroke from the Solomon Islands that was introduced to Europe in the nineteenth century by Australians who'd copied the islanders. It's sometimes called the Australian crawl or front crawl, but most people now call it "freestyle". In this style you swim face-down and circle your arms forwards through the air and backwards through the water while doing the flutter kick.


Breaststroke is one of the most popular strokes because it’s easy to learn and it's possible to keep your head above water and your hair dry while doing it. In this style you swim with your chest facing down and push your arms ahead under the water and then pull yourself forwards while doing the frog kick.


Another stroke that's done face-down is the butterfly. It's the most difficult stroke and is usually only used by competitive swimmers. In this style you rotate both arms forward just above the water and then use them to pull your body through the water while lifting your chest and head into the air. At the same time you propel your body forward with a rhythmic leg movement called the dolphin kick.


The only stroke you can do while lying on your back is the backstroke. The arm and leg movements are like those used in freestyle but with the arms rotating backwards instead of forwards. It’s easy to breathe while doing this stroke because your face is usually out of the water, but it's hard to see where you’re going. Backstroke races are the only ones that don't begin with swimmers diving into the water. They begin with swimmers pushing off from the wall of the pool after taking position side-by-side in the water.

Swimming at the Olympic Games

Swimming events at the Olympic Games are held in a pool 50 metres long and 25 metres wide. Lanes are 2.5 metres wide and each competitor must stay in their own lane. At each end of the pool are starting blocks from which swimmers dive into the water at the start of most races. Races for individual swimmers over varying distances are held for each style. The shortest races are the 50 metre freestyle events in which swimmers only complete one lap, and the longest races are the 10,000 metre freestyle marathons in which they complete 200 laps. There are also 100m and 200m races for all styles, plus 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyle races and individual medleys as well as medley and freestyle relays. Pools at major competitions like the Olympic Games have electronic touch pads under the water at each end of the pool. Each lane has its own touch pads, and swimmers must touch them at the end of each lap. They are used to make sure swimmers complete each lap and to record each swimmer’s time. They're also used to check who won each race and who came second, third, fourth, etc.

In this video you can see the four swimming strokes described above. The race starts with backstroke, followed by breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle. (Men’s 4x100m Medley Relay Final at the 2014 Pan Pacs.)

Swimming Vocabulary List

word example sentence meaning
backstroke Backstroke's easy, but you can't see where you're going. a swimming stroke you can do on your back
breaststroke My grandma can only do the breaststroke. an easy stroke in which you move your legs like a frog
butterfly I'll never learn how to do the butterfly properly! a difficult stroke mostly used by competitive swimmers
dolphin kick It takes a long time to learn how to do the dolphin kick. a rhythmic leg movement only used in the butterfly stroke
flutter kick When you do the flutter kick, keep your toes straight. the leg movement used in freestyle and backstroke
freestyle (1) Who won the women's 100 metre freestyle? a swimming event in which swimmers are free to use any style
freestyle (2) (also "Australian crawl" and "front crawl") We learned freestyle in kindergarten. the fastest swimming style, used in freestyle events
frog kick Frogs are very good at doing the frog kick. a frog-like kicking movement used in breaststroke
lap (also "length") How many laps do they swim in a 400 metre race? the distance from one end of a swimming pool to the other
medley You have to be good at every style to win a medley. a race that includes one or more laps in each of four swimming styles
open water We'll be swimming in open water instead of in a pool. a large area of water in a lake or in the sea
relay The Japanese team won the 4 x 100m relay again. a team race in which members take turns to compete
starting block I get really nervous when I'm on the starting block. a small platform each swimmer dives from at the start of a race
stroke How many strokes did you learn in your swimming classes? a style of swimming, like backstroke or breaststroke
touch pad Make sure you hit the touch pad each time you turn. an underwater electronic pad that competitors touch at the end of each lap

Contributor: Matt Errey