Champion Swimmer Marilyn Bell

Marilyn Bell, 1954. © Library and Archives Canada. Reproduced with permission. Source: Library and Archives Canada/Walter Curtin Fonds/e010770437 Credit: Walter Curtin

For the week of September 9, 2019.

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 helped defy stereotypes about women’s participation in sports and set a world record for the longest marathon swim until 1961.

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 attracted the attention of Gus Ryder, an accomplished swimming coach. Since opening the Lakeshore Swimming Club in Port Credit, Ontario in 1930, Ryder had taught thousands of children to swim. Bell joined the club and started training with Ryder. Before long, she was breaking records, becoming, for example, the first woman to complete the 41-kilometre Atlantic City marathon swim.

In the summer of 1954, the CNE offered American swimmer Florence Chadwick $10,000 if she successfully crossed Lake Ontario. The exclusivity of the offer frustrated Canadian swimmers who eagerly awaited the annual CNE swimming competitions, which were cancelled for 1954. Bell wanted to take on the challenge, but the CNE refused to recognize either her or fellow Canadian, Winnie Roach Leuszler, as official swimmers in the race. Consequently, both swam without the hope 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 took the lead, passing Chadwick who was forced to quit around 6:00 a.m. due to severe seasickness in the choppy, icy waters. Eight hours later, Leuszler also withdrew. Bell persisted, though exhausted, frozen, and attacked by eels.

Bell was the only swimmer still in the water, but she was not alone. Two boats accompanied her. Gus Ryder was aboard the whaler, Mipepa, while her parents followed in the yacht, Mona IV. Throughout the race, Ryder provided food (a mix of cereal and corn syrup), liniment, and encouragement to keep Bell going.

After nearly 21 hours and 51.5 kilometres, Bell had successfully crossed Lake Ontario. The next day, in Toronto, 250,000 people attended a ticker-tape parade to celebrate her success. The CNE granted Bell the prize money originally offered to Chadwick. For her achievement, in 1954, Bell received the Lou Marsh trophy which is awarded annually to Canada’s most outstanding athlete.

The Crossing of Lake Ontario by Marilyn Bell is a designated national historic event.

Find out more about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and the National Program of Historical Commemoration here.