National pride and gender pride were not subjects I gave a lot of thought to as a child, but I well remember how my heart exploded with both when Marilyn Bell swam across Lake Ontario, and later the English Channel and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Long before Terry Fox, long before Rick Hanson or Wayne Gretzky got our blood pumping with joy and pride, she did something no one else had done before. She was also only a teenager, too!
What an inspiration she was to children all across the land as she climbed out of Lake Ontario, exhausted and cold, after an arduous 21-hour crossing in very difficult conditions. Her name is not heard very much any longer, so for those of you who remember those amazing marathon swims and for those who have never heard of her, allow me to introduce or re-introduce to you this wonderful Canadian woman.
Marilyn was born in Toronto in 1937. Her family left for North Bay, and later Halifax before returning to Toronto in 1946. She took swimming lessons that same year, joining the Dolphinette Club, and the next year entered her first long-distance race, a one-mile swim at the CNE. Here she met her future coach Gus Ryder and joined his club, the Lakeshore Swimming Club which practiced out of Humberside Collegiate.
By July 1954 she was ready to enter the Centennial Marathon in Atlantic City where she and her fellow competitors had to swim 26 miles. Marilyn placed first among the women and seventh overall. Two other Canadians from the same club placed first and second.
Meanwhile, back in Toronto, the CNE had challenged American swimmer Florence Chadwick to swim across Lake Ontario for a cash prize of $10,000 CAD. Disappointed Canadian swimmers, including Bell, challenged this, so the CNE opened it up to other swimmers as well. Chadwick had to quit after several hours, another swimmer, Torontonian Winnie Roach who had already swum across the English Channel, had to drop out three-quarters of the way across, but Marilyn struggled on, coming ashore finally, not at the CNE as planned, but at the Boulevard Club farther west. The route was supposed to be 51.5 kilometers long, but was much longer due to the strength of the winds, waves that were almost 16 feet high and a lack of modern navigation equipment. Lampreys attacked her legs and arms as she swam.
At the start, she was accompanied by two boats, but a small fleet of them had gathered to accompany her by noon. Hourly reports were given out on the radio during the day, and when she landed, a crowd of over 250,000 were waiting for her. She was the first person ever to swim across, and the CNE decided to give her the $10,000 they had initially offered to Florence Chadwick, although according to Bell, she had done it for Canada.
Bell was the newsmaker of the year that year in Canada, and much later was awarded the Order of Ontario for her swimming achievements and the pride she had instilled in Canadians coast to coast.
Marilyn Bell married Joe Di Lascio, and they moved to New Jersey where she became a mother of four, a teacher and later, an American citizen. Today she is an 83 year-old living in a retirement home there. She had to give up her swimming in 2002 because of back pain but was able to resume her swimming in 2016 when a swimming instructor helped her change her style to ease the pressure on her spine.
Here’s to a great Canadian woman!
______________________________Contributed by CB