Marilyn-Bell
Marilyn Bell

Marilyn Bell starting her swim, September 8, 1954 (courtesy Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame).

[Editor’s Note: The Canadian Encyclopedia is proud to present its second free app, Toronto in Time, highlighting the stories of the city. “Marilyn Bell Swims Lake Ontario” is one of over 160 unique stories in the app, available for iOS and Android.]

Marilyn Bell waded into the frigid waters of Lake Ontario at Youngstown, NY, at 11:07 p.m. September 8, 1954. It wasn’t supposed to be a race, but she made it into one. The Canadian National Exhibition had offered $10,000 to American swimmer Florence Chadwick to swim the lake. Many thought it was unfair not to include Canadians in the event. Only two others took up the challenge, Winnie Roach Leuszla and 16-year old Marilyn Bell.

Marilyn’s coach Gus Ryder was in a boat ahead of her. It was dark and no one knew where the other two swimmers were. No one ashore on the other side had any idea of the drama that was to unfold as Marilyn battled 4-metre waves, lamprey eels, exhaustion and numbness. Ryder shouted encouragement and fed his swimmer corn syrup from a cup.

Marilyn-Bell

Marilyn Bell completed her swim across Lake Ontario when she touched the breakwaters at Sunnyside Beach near the CNE, September 9, 1954 (courtesy Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame).

At dawn, Marilyn had covered 22 kilometres. She did not know it but she had already eclipsed Chadwick, who had become violently ill in the choppy water. When Marilyn became numb and glassy-eyed at 10:30 a.m. Ryder took out a black board and wrote on it “FLO IS OUT.” Soon Leuszla was pulled out as well. Marilyn’s best friend Joan Cooke shouted encouragement from the boat and Marilyn started swimming again. Meanwhile, word was spreading not only across Toronto but across all of Canada. A flotilla of media appeared and tens of thousands— eventually 250,000— gathered on shore.

At 6:30 in the evening, Marilyn reached her limit and Ryder ignored her father’s wishes to pull her out. He asked Joan to swim beside her friend. Driven west by the current to Sunnyside, Marilyn finally touched the breakwater at 8:06 p.m. Because of the currents she had actually swum 64 kilometres. Pandemonium broke loose as Marilyn came ashore, the undisputed heroine of all Canada. Proud Canadians showered her with more than $50,000 in prizes and gifts.

Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Marilyn Bell.

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About James Marsh

James Marsh was born in Toronto and has spent most of his working life in publishing as an editor and writer. He has edited over 200 books in Canadian history and social science and is the author of several books and over 100 articles on Canadian history. James was editor in chief of all three print editions of The Canadian Encyclopedia (1985, 1988 and 1999) and of The Junior Encyclopedia of Canada and guided the encyclopedias into the digital world with numerous editions on CD-ROM. He remains Editor Emeritus of The Canadian Encyclopedia. James is a member of the Order of Canada and recipient of the Centenary Lorne Dawson Chauveau Medal of the Royal Society of Canada in recognition of his achievement of producing The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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