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First person to cross Lake Ontario looks back on the epic journey 60 years later

  • Sep 08, 2014
  • 597 words
  • 3 minutes
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Let’s just see what happens.

That’s what Marilyn Bell thought before she immersed herself last month into open water for the first time in 27 years to commemorate the upcoming 60th anniversary of her swim across Lake Ontario.

And what happened? At age 75, the Lady of the Lake completed a 0.4-kilometre swim in a local mountain lake in New Paltz, N.Y., all while dealing with a degenerative back condition.

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Marilyn Bell. (Photo: Courtesy of Jodi DiLascio/Marilyn Bell)

“Maybe I’ll do a mile next year, but I’m enjoying it,” Bell says. “It’s like I’ve been reborn.”

When she was 16, Bell was not only the first girl, but the first person ever, to make it across Lake Ontario, swimming for almost 21 hours over a 32-kilometre stretch.

It was Sept. 9, 1954, 60 years ago today, and the sky was gloomy from an earlier storm. There were no stars or moon to illuminate the sky and Bell had never swum at night before.

“I was very afraid of the dark,” she says. “When I looked out from the shore, I couldn’t see the horizon line. It was just black.”

The Canadian National Exhibition had invited American swimmer Florence Chadwick to swim across the lake, offering a $10,000 prize upon successful completion. She was the only one eligible for that prize. Bell was just crashing the party.

“For me, it was about a Canadian organization inviting an American to come and swim the lake and sponsoring an American when there was such a wide range of Canadian swimmers,” Bell says. “I knew I wanted to challenge Florence Chadwick and my goal was to swim further than her. However far she went, I wanted to go further. I don’t think I ever really thought about getting to the other side because I didn’t think anybody could.”

But alongside her cash-strapped parents, Bell has her coach Gus Ryder and the Toronto Star to thank for contributing to her success. Bell says without the willingness of the Toronto Star to support her financially by providing support boats, she never would have been able to try the endeavour.

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Marilyn Bell as she finishes crossing Lake Ontario on Sept. 9, 1954. (Photo: Courtesy of Jodi DiLascio/Marilyn Bell)

Gus Ryder, who was also the owner of the Lakeshore Swimming Club, which Bell taught at, was not just her coach and employer, but a life mentor.

“He taught me so much,” Bell says.

Following her Lake Ontario swim, Bell recalls many people telling her to quit school and getting offers from New York and Hollywood to get screen-tested. But as a teenager, her biggest priority was going back to school and eventually university.

She swam her last professional swim in August 1956 in the straits of Juan de Fuca before retiring and moving to Quebec to attend McGill University.

While she eventually dropped out to get married, she went back for her bachelor degree after having kids and even went on to get a master degree in teaching developmentally-handicapped people.

Bell now lives in a retirement community just across the Canada/U.S. border. But her name lives on in Canada, and not just in the hearts and memories of Canadians. Toronto recently named one of two new ferries in her name, adding to the park in her name on the city’s waterfront.

“When people ask me what was the most important life lesson, it was absolutely that we’re all going to fail at one thing or another during life, but the key is to regroup and move forward.”


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