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Conquering Lake Ontario

In 490 B.C. the Greek runner Phidippides ran the 24 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce an Athenian victory.

His endurance was so much admired that runners ever since have attempted to run similar long “Marathon” distances. 

In the twentieth century, however, long distance swimming has also attracted attention and admiration.

To swim the English Channel or Juan de Fuca Strait between Vancouver

Island and the mainland have become challenges for both male and female swimmers. 

In September 1954, some Canadian businessman from Toronto offered veteran

Californian champion Florence Chadwick $10,000 if she could swim Lake Ontario. They felt sure that such a feat would attract large crowds.

Chadwick had swum the English Channel in both directions.

However, no one – neither man nor woman – had crossed Lake Ontario.

It was a 32-mile swim through cold water and difficult currents.

Two other women also decided to take up the challenge.

One, Winnie Roach Leuszler, had also swum the English Channel.

The other was a 16 year old girl named Marilyn Bell. 

The swimmers traveled to the mouth of the Niagara River on the south side of Lake Ontario.

They would swim from Youngstown, in the U.S.A., and back to Toronto.

Bad weather delayed the swim for several days.

During the night of September 8th the weather cleared, and the swimmers entered the water before midnight.

Guided by her coach’s flashlight, Marilyn swam through the dark water and soon passed Chadwick, who was lifted from the water after swimming 12 miles.

Leuszler made it further, but she too eventually had to give up. 

Marilyn not only had to overcome her fears of the dark, but she was attacked during the night by blood-sucking lamprey eels.

She was able to knock these off with her fist.

As dawn approached, the winds and waves increased, and Marilyn’s weariness mounted. 

Her coach, Gus Ryder, passed her some corn syrup on a stick, and later gave her liniment for her tired legs.

He wrote messages on a blackboard to encourage her to keep going.

Sometimes, he tricked her into thinking that she was nearer to the shore than she was. 

Marilyn fell asleep in the water twice and had to be awakened.

The second time, a friend of hers jumped into the water beside her, and swam with her for a distance. 

Because Marilyn’s strength was declining, she was being pushed off course by the currents.

Although the direct route was 32 miles, Marilyn swam a total of 45 miles.

The last few miles were extremely difficult.

Marilyn’s family and the lifeguards felt that she should be taken out of the water.

But her coach threatened to quit as her coach if the swimmer gave up. 

It was getting dark again, and the swimmer was barely conscious as she approached the shore.

Thousands of people lined the shore hoping to touch her or get a picture of her.

Marilyn’s supporters had to push the crowds back so they wouldn’t stop her from touching the shore.

Finally, after 21 hours in the water, Marilyn reached land.

The exhausted girl was rushed to an ambulance.

She had lost about 20 pounds of her 120 pounds weight in the crossing.

Finally she was able to sleep. 

Huge crowds came out to see her the next day, and two days later there was a parade in her honour through the streets of Toronto.

Everyone admired the courage and endurance of the 16 year-old girl, who became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario.

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