I had the privilege of attending a “Swim Meet” with open water swimmers the other day. For someone who spent many hours in a pool trying to go faster as a race swimmer, I didn’t know what to expect. Especially since it was hosted by Marilyn Bell, a legendary figure who as a 16 year-old was the first person to swim across my Lake Ontario.
This Swim Meet, though, wasn’t a competition in a pool. It was a remarkable opportunity to meet some incredible people and connect over a shared passion for water.
Jodi DiLascio met me at the door. She is Marilyn Bell-DiLascio’s daughter, and the person who originally reached out to Waterkeeper. She told me that her mother followed our work at LOW, our relationship with Tanis Rideout and her book Arguments With the Lake, our Swim Guide, and the Watermark Project.
Jodi introduced me to her mother, Marilyn. She smiled and came right over, "thrilled to meet us” and wanted to introduce us to her “family.” Gabi (our Swim Guide Manager) and Tanis watched as Marilyn’s energy, generosity and leadership then took over the day.
Marilyn is passionate about swimming and swimmers. She is equally passionate about people. We were honoured when she talked about our Swim Guide and the Watermark Projects and indicated how important she felt they are.
She asked if I would make a small presentation when the party got started. We chatted a little more, took some pictures and then went into the room.
Once inside, I immediately realized that the room was packed with legendary swimmers: Vicky Keith, Cindy Nicholas, Kim Lumsdon, John Monroe, Christine and Trinity Arsenault, Annaleise Carr, Marilyn Korzekwa, Madhu Nagaraja, Colleen Shields, Laura Young, Paula Jongerden, and Thie Covery. Amazing kids, young girls, women, men whose exploits I had followed in the media and admired. All truly marathon swimmers known for their triumphs and feats in great waterbodies, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, the sea of Cortez, the English Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Strait of Magellan. Amazing.
Marilyn called the room together and immediately put me on the spot to speak about our work for clean water. I spoke as I always do these days about my belief that the best way to honour our waterways is to create more water leaders who have knowledge, experience and leadership qualities.
When I finished, Marilyn asked me to talk more about our projects the Swim Guide and Watermark. I felt embarrassed that this great group of friends had their party crashed by an environmental lawyer lecturing them on the importance of water, something these swimmers needed no reminding of; but once again Marilyn made me feel welcome.
She asked the swimmers to consider our work as vital and important. She told everyone she’d spent that morning watching all 27 Watermarks recorded at the Toronto Gala and was inspired to think of hers.
Marilyn then went on to recall her time with her father, swimming as a young girl on Wasaga Beach, finding it so tricky to breathe as she moved in the water. She recalled how the following year she was in the waters near Midland, again with her father, again swimming. Breathing as she swam had become so easy. Her father, a non-swimmer, was so proud that she could swim so well. This champion long-distance swimmer’s Watermark was not, as many would have guessed, about the conquest of Lake Ontario. It was about a simple moment in the water with her father, realizing that she was learning and growing.
Marilyn then went around the room and introduced each person. She asked the swimmers to list their swims. It was a who’s-who of marathon swimming. All talked about lakes and straits that they swam and finished or failed to finish because of cold water, weather, lightning, waves, fatigue, even pollution.
It all wrapped up with an amazing story from Vicki Keith, the legendary Canadian swimmer from Kingston Ontario. Vicky told the story of a teenage girl she helped train to swim across Lake Erie, Ashley Cowan. Ashley lost both her arms and legs to meningitis as an infant. She learned how to swim from Vicky, whom she paid one hundred dollars to train her to swim across a lake. Nearing the end of the swim, one mile from shore, she wanted out of the water. Tired not from swimming but of being in water. Somehow, she found it in her to persevere and to complete the lake crossing.
There was no quit in any of these people. They never listened to those who said it can’t be done. They believed you can do whatever you want, and went about proving it. In the process, they had fun, were supported by family, and made lifelong friends.
I can’t thank Marilyn and Jodi enough for this experience. They are true champions of Lake Ontario, a mentor and a model for others. They possess all the qualities I hope to see in those who are fighting – against the odds – for swimmable, drinkable, fishable water.
When I went home, I thought about how often I hear “it can’t be done.” The St. Lawrence Fish Market, with its loading bays now so far from the Lake Ontario shore, doesn’t sell fish. We’ve come to believe that is normal. Nearly 98% of Toronto’s waterfront is not monitored for recreational use, and we believe that is normal. We’re accepting that storing nuclear waste, bitumen and other toxins around the Lake is inevitable.
Marilyn and her swimmers reminded me that we don’t always need to listen to the people who say “it can’t be done.”
We can have swimmable, drinkable, fishable Great Lakes if we are prepared to work at it. Why not?
Marilyn Bell never stop believing, and accomplished what no one thought possible. That is the heart of a true Waterkeeper, a label she has earned.
On behalf of Gabi, Tanis, myself, and everyone at Waterkeeper, thank you to everyone at the Swim Meet. Thanks for inviting us into your family.
Swim Meet attendees: Marilyn Bell-Dilascio, Jodi Dilascio, Vicky Keith, Kim Lumsdon, Cindy Nicholas, John Monroe, Christine Arsenault, Trinity Arsenault, Madhu Nagaraja, Colleen Shields, Annaleise Carr, Paula Jongerden, Thie Convery, Laura Young, Marilyn Korzekwa.