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Marilyn Bell

Photograph of Marilyn Bell

(1937- )

Marathon Swimming


On September 9, 1954, at age 16, Toronto schoolgirl Marilyn Bell became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. She had entered the lake at Youngstown, New York shortly after 11:00 p.m. on September 8 and due to poor conditions, had been forced to swim much further than the 51.5 kilometre (32 mile) route straight across the lake.

The Canadian National Exhibition had offered Florence Chadwick, a 34-year-old American who was a well-known marathon swimmer, $10 000 to complete the crossing of the lake. Marilyn Bell decided to attempt the swim herself even though she had not been invited or offered any money to do so. In later years, she recalled " I don't think I was sure I could make it but I wasn't so sure Florence Chadwick could make it either. The challenge for me was to go one stroke further than the American. As corny as it sounds..., I did it for Canada." (A Concise History of Sport in Canada, p. 253)

Florence Chadwick and Winnie Roach Leuszler, a Toronto swimming star who had also joined the challenge, were forced to quit the race before 6:00 a.m. on September 9. Marilyn Bell continued forward with determination, under the guidance of her coach, Gus Ryder, despite the cold water, the presence of lamprey eels and the fatigue that almost overwhelmed her at times.

As Marilyn progressed towards her goal of reaching the Toronto shore, the public were kept informed through hourly reports by radio stations and extra editions issued by the newspapers. Finally, shortly after 8:00 p.m. on September 9, she completed her conquest of Lake Ontario, in view of a huge crowd of enthusiastic spectators, by touching the break wall located just west of the area now known as Marilyn Bell Park. It has been said that she "...shattered the myth of the ‘fragile' female with her spectacular swim..." (A Concise History of Sport in Canada, p. 241) The Canadian National Exhibition announced she would get the prize money. She became an international celebrity and was showered with gifts from Canadians.

Marilyn had been encouraged by her parents at an early age to join the Lakeshore Swimming Club at Port Credit, Ontario. Gus Ryder, its founder, guided her and by age 14 she was already swimming in the longer professional marathons. She won the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's outstanding athlete in 1953 and she had, a few weeks before her crossing of Lake Ontario, achieved the distinction of being the first woman to finish the well-known Atlantic City marathon swim.

After completing the Lake Ontario swim, Marilyn Bell took on other challenges. On July 31, 1955 she swam the English Channel. At 17 years of age, she was the youngest swimmer to succeed in this endeavour. On August 23, 1956, in her second attempt, she swam across the Juan de Fuca Strait. That same year she stopped participating in marathon swimming. Soon afterwards, she married Joe Di Lascio and raised four children in Willingboro, New Jersey.

Marilyn Bell has been inducted into both Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and the Ontario Aquatic Hall of Fame. A documentary on her, entitled The Lady of the Lake, aired on History Television.


McAllister Ron. - Swim to glory : the story of Marilyn Bell and the Lakeshore Swimming Club. - Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, 1954. - 128 p.

McDonald, David. - For the record : Canada's greatest women athletes. - Toronto : Mesa Associates, 1981. - 270 p.

Wise S.F. ; Fisher, Douglas. - Canada's sporting heroes. - Don Mills, Ont. : General Publishing Co., 1974. - 338 p.

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