Swimming across one of the Great Lakes is not something an amateur swimmer would dream of attempting. Conquering Lake Ontario has been the goal of professional long-distance swimmers for decades. Since 1954, a mere 62 people have managed to swim across Lake Ontario. The latest one to do is a Canadian university professor who did it on his 70th birthday. Many have failed to make it across, but the first person to prove it was possible fifty years ago. Surprise, it’s a woman!

The First to Cross

Canadian swimmer Marilyn Bell’s first notable athletic accomplishment was crossing Lake Ontario. She was the first person ever to do so in 1954. She followed this up in 1955 by swimming across the English Channel. This is another one of her many achievements that also include swimming through the rough Pacific waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 1956. The Strait of Juan de Fuca separates Washington State from Vancouver Island. Bell’s incredible feat of swimming across Lake Ontario was hailed as a monumental achievement. This was celebrated on the covers of newspapers across the country.

Marilyn Bell
Canadian long-distance swimmer Marilyn Bell.

On September 8, 1954, at 11:07 p.m., Marilyn Bell entered the water. She departed Youngstown, New York on the border with Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. As part of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, the CNE offered Florence Chadwick $10,000 to cross. The move was criticized by Canadians for being unpatriotic. Protests forced the CNE organizing committee to open the crossing as a relay race. However, Bell decided against participating to conquer the challenge herself. 

FIghting against the crashing 15-foot waves and lamprey eels attacking her arms, Bell set off. Despite the challenges of wind, water and wildlife, Bell completed the 52 km (32 miles) journey in 20 hours and 59 minutes. Upon arriving at the CNE grounds, more than 250,000 people were awaiting her arrival. She credited her success to Pablum, corn syrup, lemon juice with water and her boat crew to keep her energy up. Sadly, Chadwick bowed out after a few hours in the lake, due to stomach cramps.

The CNE was so amazed that they gave Bell the $10,000 prize and other gifts such as a new car and TV. She was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1958. Bell was also awarded the Order of Canada in 2002.