Cindy Nicholas, the “Queen of the Channel”

Cindy Nicholas. © Courtesy of International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF)

For the week of September 13, 2021

On September 13, 1982, Cynthia Maria Theresa “Cindy” Nicholas swam across the dangerous waters of the English Channel for the 19th time, setting a record for the most successful solo crossings by a Canadian swimmer. 

Nicholas was born in Toronto, Ontario, in 1957. Her father taught her how to swim when she was just two years old and, by age five, she began competing. She held 16 provincial and national records in freestyle, butterfly, and backstroke events when she was still in elementary school, and became Ontario provincial champion in 1968 and 1970. She also competed in the Canadian Championships and the 1972 Canadian Olympic Trials. 

Inspired by Marilyn Bell’s famed crossing in 1955, Nicholas attempted to swim the breadth of Lake Ontario in August 1974. She set out from Youngstown, New York, at 2:00 a.m. A pilot spotted Nicholas and her father around 8:00 a.m., but which time she was about halfway across. The pilot quickly spread the word and before long a small flotilla of boats had gathered to watch her successfully complete the crossing. She reached Ontario Place, site of the Canadian National Exhibition, after 15 hours and 10 minutes, setting a new record for the fastest crossing of Lake Ontario. 

Encouraged by this success, in July 1975 Nicholas decided to swim across the English Channel, one of the world’s most treacherous and fearsome bodies of water. Swimmers who attempt this crossing have to navigate 32 kilometers of cold water (less than 17º Celsius), and withstand large swells and strong winds. Fewer than 20 percent of swimmers complete the crossing and the 17-year-old Nicholas was among those exceptional few.  She recorded the second-fastest swim across the English Channel (nine hours and 46 minutes) and set a new women’s record, which she held for 13 years. 

In 1977, Nicholas became the first woman to complete a two-way crossing of the English Channel. Despite cuts and abrasions suffered from hitting rocks, she completed the swim in 19 hours and 55 minutes. In recognition of this physical feat, Nicholas was awarded the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as Canada’s female athlete of the year. She completed four more double-crossings in the years that followed, and twice beat her record, earning the moniker “Queen of the Channel” and induction into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1993. Following her retirement from swimming, Nicholas became a successful lawyer and was elected to the Ontario Legislature. 

Crossing of Lake Ontario by Marilyn Bell is a national historic event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.

 

Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.