Solo Swims of Ontario Inc.

Hall of Fame

Marilyn Bell

A Pioneering Canadian Marathon Swimmer

The winner, Marilyn, is seen here (on the right) with the famous contenders, before her 1954 Lake Ontario swim. On the left, Winnie Roach Leuszler (first Canadian to cross the English Channel) and in the centre the stand-in, Mystery Woman, for Florence Chadwick (World record holder for the English Channel, England to France, 1951-1964).
Copyright: STAR Newspaper Services, Toronto, 1954.
The end of the Lake Ontario ordeal finishing at the breakwater.
Copyright: The Telegram, Toronto, 1954.
Forty years after the successful crossing of Lake Ontario, Marilyn is seen here being interviewed at the dedication of the Swimmers' Plaque at Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1994.

Born at St Joseph's Hospital in Toronto on 19th October 1937, Marilyn Bell became the first person to cross Lake Ontario on 8-9th September 1954 at the age of 16 years. Her swim took 20 hours 55 minutes, started from Youngstown, New York state, at the mouth of the Niagara River, and ended at the breakwater just to the west of the Canadian National Exhibition in her hometown, Toronto. A plaque commemorating the swim and dedicating a park in Marilyn's name was opened by Marilyn Bell Di Lascio on August 16, 1984.
Recovered and resting after the Lake Ontario swim.
Copyright: Star News Service, 1954
Ticker-tape parade with Gus Ryder.
Copyright: The Telegram, 1954
Marilyn completed her swim without goggles.
Copyright: Star News Service, 1954
Coach, Gus Ryder, with blackboard communicates with Marilyn during the swim.
Copyright: Star News Service, 1954
Friend, Joan Cooke, and Toronto Star reporter, George Bryant, help Marilyn onto the support boat, Mona IV, at the completion of the swim.
Copyright: Star News Service, 1954
Marilyn feeds next to the accompanying boat, Mipepa, carrying Joan Cooke, George Bryant, Gus Ryder and Jack Russell.
Copyright: Sun Media Corp.
CNE reception the day after the swim.
Copyright: Star News Service, 1954
Marilyn with parents, Grace and Syd, after the swim.
Copyright: Star News Service, 1954

In November 1999, the Globe and Mail newspaper published the results of a survey of Canadian newspaper editors and broadcasters conducted by The Canadian Press and Broadcast News in seeking the Top-10 listing for Canadian Female Athletes of the Century. Marilyn was the highest rated swimmer, and ranked number 9 just in front of swimmer Elaine Tanner. An amazing achievement - to be remembered by the news media, some 45 years after the pioneering Lake swim that captured the hearts of so many Torontonians.

Photograph with the ladies trophy for winning the 1954 Atlantic City professional race (Copyright, Star New Service, 1954).
Prior to the 1954 Lake swim, Marilyn, Cliff Lumsdon and Tom Park swam in the Atlantic City professional marathon swim around Absicon Island. Cliff and Tom were the first and second swimmers in the mens' event and a 112 lb Marilyn won the ladies' event. Their return to Toronto, however, met with an announcement by the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) that American swimmer Florence Chadwick had been offered $10,000 if she could swim across Lake Ontario. In 1953, with a time of 14:42, Florence crossed the English Channel for the second time and became the fastest person (Man or woman) ever to cross the Channel from England to France. Both Marilyn and Winnie Roach (first Canadian to cross the English Channel in 1951, France-England 13:25) then became the centre of a news-media controversy that involved the CNE, and the newspapers the Toronto Daily Star and the Toronto Evening Telegram. On the evening of September 8, 1954, the unofficial competition resulted in both Marilyn and Winnie entering the water within an hour of Florence Chadwick's chosen time to start her attempt to cross Lake Ontario. Florence, however, was forced to retire after several hours with stomach pains and vomiting. Winnie was forced by the conditions to retire some time later.

The rest was a battle of guts and teamwork - and a 16-year-old Giant Killer emerged triumphantly from the water - in front of a crowd of some 50,000 Torontonians - at about 8:15 pm on September 9.

Marilyn has been featured in two separate television documentaries:

English Channel, 1955

In 1955, the year following year her Lake Ontario crossing, Marilyn swam the English Channel and became the 32nd person (14th woman, and second Canadian) to cross from France to England with her time of 14 hours 36 minutes. The first Canadian to cross the English Channel was Winnie Roach in 1951; her crossing from France to England took 13 hours 25 minutes - see Canadians cross The Channel.

Two books have been written about Marilyn's Lake Ontario swim and they are reviewed on the Books page of the web site:

Juan da Fuca Strait, 1956

On 23 August 1956, Marilyn swam the 18.3-mile Juan de Fuca Strait in 11 hours 35 minutes in her second attempt. Her swim was from Edix Hook, near Port Angeles, Washington to Clover Point, Victoria on Vancouver Island. At that time, she was the fifth swimmer and second woman to have swum the Strait. Her first attempt on 10 August of the same year lasted 9 hours 50 minutes, before she retired from the water the temperature of which had ranged from 46-49-degrees F ! This achievement was honoured by the erection of a plaque in Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, British Columbia.

In 2020, Marilyn recalled her experiences with Ernst Vierkoetter who, in her early years, had been her coach - a fascinating story.

A recipient of many awards, including the Cliff Lumsdon Award of SSO and inclusion in the Swim Ontario Hall of Fame, Marilyn received the Order of Ontario in 2002, but still awaits her long-deserved Order of Canada.

Check-out the CBC radio interviews with Marilyn that were conducted the day after her 1954 swim, and ten years later when she looked back on her achievement and commented on her family of four.

Marilyn is an inspirational speaker whose words and activities continue to inspire so many people of all ages. Seen in the right photograph at the top of the page, at the dedication of the Swimmers' Plaque at Niagara on the Lake in 1994, Marilyn quoted one of the small lessons she has learnt in life from her swimming, namely:

It's OK if you fail something, as long as you don't give up,
as long as you say -
OK, I will try it again !

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Created: 1998
Last Updated: 11th April 2022