Heritage Moments: Marilyn Bell, the teenager who conquered eels, exhaustion and Lake Ontario
Overnight sensation — that term gets bandied about from time to time. But Marilyn Bell literally was one. At 11:07 p.m. on Sept. 8, 1954, when she dove into chilly Lake Ontario by the U.S. Coast Guard station at Youngstown, Bell was a little-known teenage long-distance swimmer. At 8:06 p.m. on Sept. 9, when she came ashore off Toronto’s West End, she was quite literally a national hero.
The English Channel had been swum across several times by then — the first man crossed in 1875, the first woman in 1926 — but no one had ever crossed the 32 miles of Lake Ontario. It was too cold; the winds made the water too choppy; and there were lamprey eels in there, appalling parasitic fish that attached themselves to swimmers’ bodies with their toothed, sucker-like mouths. Swimming across the lake was a monumental challenge.
Enter the Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto’s annual late-summer extravaganza by the lakeshore. The CNE offered Florence Chadwick, the famous American English Channel swimmer, $10,000 to swim the lake. To cool the outrage some felt at the absence of a Canadian, the CNE later invited Winnie Roach Leuszler, the first Canadian Channel swimmer, to the challenge.
No one invited Marilyn Bell, even though she had recently won a 26-mile race at Atlantic City. Just 16, she was an up-and-coming distance swimmer at Toronto’s Lakeshore Club — too far under the radar for the CNE, but good enough to have been noticed by Alexandrine Gibb, a Toronto Daily Star reporter who specialized in women’s sports. Gibb persuaded Bell to take up the challenge as well, with the Star’s support.
On the evening of Sept. 8, the three swimmers stood ready at Youngstown, where Fort Niagara gazes across the lake at distant Toronto. Chadwick went into the water first. Bell went in next, followed by the little dory that would accompany her across the lake; in it were her coach, Gus Ryder, two boatmen and a Star reporter. Leuszler went in third, but had to come out when she couldn’t locate her support boat in the dark.
Through the night Bell swam, battling 12-foot waves. Elsewhere on the lake, out of sight and out of earshot, Chadwick became violently ill and dropped out. Leuszler entered the water again at Youngstown, but the cold forced her to quit as well. News of those developments did not reach Ryder aboard the boat, and Bell in the water, until 10:30 a.m.
It was just her now. She still had half the lake to swim.
With Ryder shouting encouragement, Bell fought on. Lampreys stuck themselves to her; she pulled them off. Cramps wracked her legs; she swam through the pain. When her pace lagged, a friend from her swimming club dove into the water and swam alongside; Bell’s pace picked up again. And whenever she thought about quitting, she resolved to prove that a Canadian could succeed.
By early afternoon word of Marilyn Bell’s quest had gripped Toronto, chronicled by hourly extra editions of the city’s three papers. Now there were 20 boats sailing near, and three seaplanes flying above, the lone swimmer.
Increasingly numb, Bell pushed on through the day. The sun went down off to her left. She was nearly unconscious, but she did not stop. With just two miles to go, the wind was picking up and it was getting dark again. Bell had enough – she stopped, treading water.
“I can’t go any farther!” she cried.
“Keep going Marilyn!” Ryder shouted.
“Take her out, Gus,” Bell’s father yelled from a nearby boat.
“Fifteen minutes more, Marilyn,” Ryder shouted, lying. “Come on!”
Bell put her face in the water and swam on.
When she finally touched the breakwater after 20 hours and 59 minutes in the lake, Bell was barely coherent. As she was pulled out of the water, she couldn’t make out the cheers from the thousands who had gathered at the CNE grounds just down the road. But restored by an overnight rest at the Royal York Hotel, the next day Bell spoke to CBC, then was driven to the CNE Grandstand, where a crowd of 50,000 gave her a 20-minute standing ovation. A few days later, a quarter million Torontonians lined the streets for her ticker tape parade.
Marilyn Bell went on to swim the English Channel and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At the age of 18, she quit competitive swimming to attend university. She went on to become a teacher and had four children. Today, she often travels to offer encouragement to other girls and women preparing for marathon swims.
“As corny as it sounds,” Bell said, looking back on the swim of a lifetime, “I did it for Canada.”
Cast (in order of appearance):
Marilyn Bell: Alex Dermody
Gus Ryder: Troy Stanfield
Narrator: Susan Banks
Sound recording: Brodie Spies (Niagara College Canada, Welland), Omar Fetouh (WBFO)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Special thanks to:
Dave Debo, WBFO news director
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Robin McCulloch, professor and program coordinator, acting for film and television, Niagara College Canada, Welland
Bruce Gilbert, professor of broadcasting -- radio, television and film, Niagara College Canada, Welland
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)