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1954: Marilyn Bell swims Lake Ontario

The Story


 Toronto's Marilyn Bell entered Lake Ontario as an ambitious 16-year-old underdog. Seventy thousand strokes later, she emerges a celebrity. Now known as the "First Lady of the Lake," Bell bears the distinction of being the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. Top billing of the crossing was initially given to American marathon swimmer Florence Chadwick, whom the Canadian National Exhibition had offered a $10,000 prize. The Toronto Telegram was given exclusive coverage and sponsorship. Bell wasn't offered any money but The Toronto Star covered her journey and provided a boat and a crew. Bell persevered through the cold water as lamprey eels assaulted her legs. Radio stations broadcast hourly updates of her journey. By the time she finished her crossing, a crowd of approximately 100,000 people had assembled at the CNE to welcome her arrival. In this clip, Marilyn describes her journey, her motivation and hopes for the future.

Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio News
Broadcast Date: Sept. 9, 1954
Guest(s): Marilyn Bell
Reporter: Bill Beatty
Duration: 3:06
Photo: Reproduced with the permission of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame.

Did You know?


• The CNE awarded Bell the $10,000 prize. She also accepted more than $50,000 in gifts from fans across Canada.

• Bell was already a celebrated amateur swimmer before she crossed Lake Ontario, having won the Lou Marsh Trophy - awarded annually to Canada's top athlete - in 1953. In 1954, she turned professional and was the first woman to complete the 26-mile Atlantic City Marathon.

• She was also the youngest person to swim across the English Channel on July 31, 1955.

• On August 23, 1956, Bell became the first woman to conquer the Straits of Juan de Fuca in her second attempt.

• She retired in 1956 and married swimmer Joe Di Lascio. They moved to New Jersey and raised four children together.


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