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Ladies trophy for winning the 1954 Atlantic City professional race (Copyright, Star New Service, 1954).

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Swimming Lake Ontario without goggles (Copyright, Star New Service, 1954).

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Coach, Gus Ryder, with blackboard (Copyright, Star News Service, 1954).

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Accompanied by Joan Cooke, George Bryant, Gus Ryder and Jack Russell. (Copyright, Sun Media Corp.)

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Ticker-tape parade with Gus Ryder.
(Copyright, The Telegram, 1954)

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At the dedication of the Plaque at Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1994.

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With Cindy Nicholas in 2018

Marilyn Bell

A Pioneering Canadian Marathon Swimmer

Born 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.

Prior to the 1954 Lake swim, Marilyn, Cliff Lumsdon and Tom Park swam in the Atlantic City professional marathon swim around Absecon Island. Cliff and Tom were the first and second swimmers in the men's 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. The offer to Chadwick had disappointed Canadian swimmers, including Marilyn and Winnie Roach (first Canadian to cross the English Channel in 1951). They decided to also swim the lake for Canada.  On the evening of September 8, 1954, both Marilyn and Winnie entered the water within an hour of Florence Chadwick. Florence, however, was forced to retire after several hours with stomach pains and vomiting. Winnie was also forced by the conditions to retire some time later.

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

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.

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!

Marilyn has been featured in television documentaries and in books:

  • In the History Television series Turning Points in History, producers Leslie Fruman and Denise Poirier produced the documentary "The Lady of the Lake". 

  • A two-part mini series "Heart: The Marilyn Bell Story" was produced by Cinar's Bernie Zukerman and first aired on Canadian television on 4th February 2001.

  • McAllister, Ron (1954). Swim to Glory: The Story of Marilyn Bell and the Lakeshore Swimming Club. (See Books).

  • Tivy, Patrick (2003). Marilyn Bell: The Heart-Stopping Tale of Marilyn's Record-Breaking Swim. (See Books).

plaque commemorating the swim and dedicating a park in Marilyn's name was opened by Marilyn Bell DiLascio in Toronto on August 16, 1984. Marilyn is the recipient of many awards, including the the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's athlete of the year in 1954, the Cliff Lumsdon Award of SSO, the Order of Ontario and inclusion in the Swim Ontario Hall of Fame, the Canadian Swimming Hall of Fame, Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, and the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. In 1999, the Globe and Mail newspaper surveyed of Canadian newspaper editors and broadcasters asking for the Top-10 Canadian Female Athletes of the Century. Marilyn was 9th overall and the highest rated swimmer. 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. In 2010, a ferry boat to serve the Toronto Island Airport was named the Marilyn Bell 1.

 During the Atlantic City race in New Jersey, Marilyn met a lifeguard who would become her husband, Chip DiLascio. When they married, Marilyn moved to the USA, raised 4 children and was a teacher for over 20 years. 

Marilyn still inspires so many people of all ages. She continues to support marathon swimming in Canada as an active contributor to the organization of Solo Swims of Ontario and in providing a never-hesitating enthusiasm to our swimmers. 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.

"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!"