The Lou Marsh Legacy - Honouring Canada's Top Athletes

Marilyn Bell

Swimming

1954


Photo of Marilyn Bell preparing to swim

Photo of Marilyn Bell preparing to swim

Date
1954
Collection
Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

Swim Across Lake Ontario

"The ending I have no recollection of. I do not remember touching the break wall. There were so many people along the Lakeshore, they had turned on their headlights. I've seen film of that, and I've seen still pictures and I've heard tapes of the roaring of the crowd. I missed the best part!" - Marilyn Bell

The stage for the first ever successful crossing of Lake Ontario was far from perfect. A wonderful, modest, petite teenager would step onto it and overcome all its imperfections including her own. She would be tested over and over and rely on the complete trust she had placed in her coach Gus Ryder.

16-year old Marilyn Bell entered the chilly temperamental waters of Lake Ontario shortly after 11:00 PM on September 8, 1954, as an "unofficial" swimmer. The Canadian National Exhibition had exclusively offered veteran American marathon swimmer Florence Chadwick a $10,000.00 prize for completing the 32-mile swim from Youngstown, New York, to Toronto. Marilyn was swimming for Canada with no promise of money. Winnie Roach, another Canadian would also make the attempt.

Marilyn was scared to death of swimming at night and getting through it was monumental. It seems the floodlight that guided her, attracted lamprey eels. Before dawn, the coach helped his swimmer through several bouts of resignation. The sunrise was glorious and symbolic of a new beginning for Marilyn. It spurred her on for a few more hours till early morning when the reality of severe stomach pains and legs numb from the cold, convinced her it was time to quit. In her mind, her job was done. The other two ladies had been pulled out and she had gone further. Gus finally conceded and asked Marilyn to swim to the boat. Perhaps it was the relief that the ordeal was finally over that caused her to kick. Gus asked the driver to speed up and keep her at a distance. Marilyn kept kicking till she realized she had been *tricked.* Marilyn yelled at Gus. Gus said, "Marilyn, you're kicking!" At that moment Marilyn hated him. Gus knew his swimmer. Marilyn knew she would have never forgiven him if he pulled her out knowing she could still swim. He did what he had to do. Marilyn swam on.

Her support crew was unwavering in their encouragement. Corn syrup, pablum, and juice delivered via a crude feeding stick provided regular boosts.

For hours the Toronto shoreline eluded her, seemingly never getting closer, as relentless waves and strong currents crippled her progress. Yet somehow in a semi-sleep state, battling total exhaustion, with legs the weight of lead and numbness from the waist down, she summoned the will to cross that final impossible threshold. With one last unbelievable kick, after nearly 21 hours, she touched the wall. She may not have been *present,* but her spirit, deeper than Lake Ontario itself, surely was.

More Honours for Marilyn, Wins Marsh Trophy Adobe PDF Transcript


Highlights

1954
Swam 26-mile marathon in Atlantic City
1954
First person to swim across Lake Ontario, in 20 hours and 58 minutes
1954
Lou Marsh Memorial Award
1955
Youngest person to swim the English Channel
1956
Swam the Straights of Juan de Fuca
1993
Cliff Lumsdon Award for outstanding achievement in solo marathon swimming
2003
Named to the Order of Ontario