A few years ago, if you’d asked me who Marilyn Bell was, I might have been able to tell you she was a swimmer. Maybe I’d be able to tell you she was the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. Then I began researching Marilyn for a series of poems I was writing about Lake Ontario and well, that’s not the half of it.
She was never the fastest swimmer, but Marilyn had persistence and guts. After trying and failing to make the 1952 Olympic team she turned her sights to professional long distance swimming. Her first major swim: A 26 mile swim in Atlantic City. Thirty-nine swimmers started. Seven finished. Marilyn was last, but she was the only woman – girl – to cross the line.
After that she seemed ready for the 32 miles across the lake.
At sixteen years old, one big swim behind her, Marilyn had to beg to be allowed to try and make the crossing. The organizers of the 1954 CNE had hired Florence Chadwick – a renowned swimmer, the first woman to swim the English Channel – to be the first person to make the swim. They were offering $10,000 to do so. Marilyn took it as snub to Canadian swimmers and agreed to do it without any payment whatsoever, on Chadwick’s schedule.
Chadwick made the decision to start on September 8th at 11pm. Marilyn was in the lake at Youngstown shortly after and started swimming, alone, in the dark, aiming north.
Chadwick left the swim after only six hours, with cramps and vomiting. Marilyn kept going. And while she did the country came alive with enthusiasm. People listened to reports on the radio, and the longer Marilyn swam the more people prayed and hoped and waited.
Marilyn swam for twenty hours and fifty-nine minutes and arrived at what is now Marilyn Bell Park, just west of the CNE grounds to some 300,000 people cheering her on. The CNE paid her the $10,000.
Instantly she was a national celebrity, staked out by reporters and appearing on the front page of newspapers for days at a time. She was showered in gifts, and a ticker tape parade and named Canadian Newsmaker of the year.
But that wasn’t all. Marilyn went on to become the youngest person to swim the English Channel in 1955 and in 1956 retired from professional swimming after crossing the Straits of Juan de Fuca.
Then she retired from the profession – married, became a teacher, raised a family, and kept swimming.
Her swim, her accomplishments, remind us of what the lake can do for us. Bring us together, give us cause for triumph and celebration, become a touchstone. It’s part of our story, as a city, as a country as a watershed.
This weekend, I’ll get the chance, along with several other Waterkeepers, to meet Marilyn Bell near the shores of her – our – lake, and thank her for keeping the lake alive in our imaginations.
This lake, like others, was dug out
ice retreating, scraping back the stone.
And here, now, a girl on the shore.
Measure that. The distance from her
to here, from here to there. Fifty-four kilometres
as the crow flies, sixty-four against the current.
Three point two kilometres an hour.
This might be finished tomorrow.
She inhales and wishes for the bones
of a bird, a pigeon’s honing for home,
pictures her small arms as wings, beating against the lake.
She’ll make this decision over and over and over,
until it’s over.
There has to be a first and a last.
And no doubt there will be another.
Someone will forget.
The lake will dry out.
Tanis Rideout is the Poet-Laureate of Lake Ontario and has been part of the Waterkeeper community forever. “Arguments with the Lake” is Tanis’ book of poems based on Marilyn’s historic swim.