Marilyn Bell waded into the frigid waters of Lake Ontario at Youngstown, NY, at 11:07 p.m. Wednesday, 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 a 16-year old student, 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.
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.
By James Marsh