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Canada's Own Lady of the Lake

For the week of Monday September 3, 2007

On September 9, 1954, 16-year-old Marilyn Bell became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. A remarkable feat of endurance, the crossing set a world record for the longest marathon swim – a record that remained unbroken until 1961.

Marilyn Bell

Marilyn Bell
© The Ontario Aquatic Hall of Fame

Bell began swimming competitively six years earlier when she participated in her first race at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) in Toronto. Despite finishing ninth, her swim was impressive enough to gain the attention of Gus Ryder – the founder of the Lakeshore Swimming Club in Port Credit, Ontario. Shortly thereafter, Bell joined the club and began to train with Ryder.

By 1953-54, Bell established her reputation by winning the Lou Marsh Trophy awarded annually to Canada's most outstanding athlete  and by becoming the first woman to complete the 20-mile (30 km) Atlantic City marathon swim. With these achievements under her belt, Bell felt prepared to tackle Lake Ontario.

In the summer of 1954, the CNE offered American swimmer, Florence Chadwick, $10,000 to successfully cross Lake Ontario. The exclusivity of the offer outraged Canadian swimmers who eagerly awaited the annual CNE swimming competitions. Not dismayed and wanting to accept the challenge, Bell threw her hat into the ring. The CNE, however, refused to recognize either Bell or fellow Canadian, Winnie Roach Leuszler, as official swimmers in the race. Consequently, both swam without the promise of prize money.

The three women entered Lake Ontario off the shore of Youngstown, New York, around 11:00 p.m. on September 8. Within an hour, Bell passed Chadwick to take the lead. The choppy waters wreaked havoc on Chadwick, forcing her to quit around 6:00 a.m. due to severe seasickness. Eight hours later, Leuszler also withdrew. Despite icy, choppy water, eels attacking her body, and exhaustion threatening to takeover, Bell persisted.

Marilyn Bell

Marilyn Bell
© Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

Although she was the only swimmer still in the water, Bell was not alone. Two boats accompanied her: Ryder was aboard the whaler, Mipepa, while Bell’s parents were on the yacht, Mona IV. Throughout the race, Ryder provided food (a mix of pablum and corn syrup), liniment, and encouragement to keep Bell going.

After nearly 21 hours and 51.5 kilometres, Bell reached Toronto. The city roared with pride and support for the Canadian who succeeded where the American favourite failed. Torontonians even threw a ticker-tape parade to celebrate the achievement. The CNE also rallied behind Bell, granting her the prize money originally offered to Chadwick.

A momentous achievement in the history of Canadian sport, the legendary crossing of Lake Ontario by Marilyn Bell is a National Historic Event.

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