Battling one of the Great Lakes is not something an amateur swimmer would dream of attempting. However, swimming across Lake Ontario has been a goal for professional long distance swimmers for many years. Sensational athletes will often tackle this daunting task as a means of raising money for charity, or simply for the challenge. Since 1954, 62 people have managed to successfully swim across Lake Ontario, the latest being a Canadian university professor who did so on his 70th birthday! Many have failed however and the first person to prove it was possible did so fifty years ago, and surprise! It was a woman!

The First to Cross

Canadian swimmer Marilyn Bell’s first notable athletic accomplishment was conquering Lake Ontario. After becoming the first person to ever successfully cross Lake Ontario in 1954, she went on to conquer the English channel the following year. She was also the first Canadian to tame the rough Pacific waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 1956. For those who are not familiar, the Strait of Juan de Fuca separates Washington State from Vancouver Island. Bell’s incredible crossing of Lake Ontario was acclaimed as a monumental accomplishment and was on the cover of countless newspapers across the country.

On Sept. 8, 1954, at 11:07 pm Marilyn Bell entered the water. She left from Youngstown, New York, on the border with Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. As part of a promotion for the annual Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, the CNE offered American long distance swimmer Florence Chadwick $10,000 to complete the cross. However, Canadians criticized the unpatriotic move to tap Chadwick for the attempt rather than one of their fellow countrymen. Due to these protests, the CNE organizing committee opened the cross as a relay race. Despite the change, Bell chose to forgo a spot as a leg in the relay because she was confident she could make the cross by herself.

Bell faced waves that were up to 15 feet high and lamprey eels relentlessly attacking her arms and legs (If you don’t know what a lamprey eel is Google it… they’re the stuff of nightmares!). In spite of the challenges Bell faced from wind, water and wildlife, she was able to complete the 52 km (32 mile) journey in 20 hours 59 minutes. Finally, she reached a breakwater near the CNE grounds where more than 250,000 people awaited her arrival. She credited her success to Pablum, corn syrup, lemon juice with water and her boat crew to keep her energy up. Chadwick, unfortunately, bowed out after only a few hours in the water due to stomach cramps.

The CNE were so elated with Bell’s accomplishment they gave her the $10,000 prize as well as an abundance of gifts which included a new car and TV. She would later be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1958, and awarded the highest honor a Canadian citizen can receive – the Order of Canada – in 2002.