Marilyn Bell

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Marilyn Bell Di Lascio
Born Marilyn Grace Bell
(1937-10-19) October 19, 1937 (age 79)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Known for Long-distance swimming

Marilyn Grace Bell Di Lascio (born October 19, 1937) is a retired Canadian long distance swimmer. She was the first person to swim across Lake Ontario and later swam the English Channel and Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Personal life[edit]

Bell was born in Toronto, Ontario to parents Sydney and Grace Bell. The family moved to North Bay, Ontario, then Halifax, Nova Scotia before returning to Toronto in 1946.[1] After her swimming career, Marilyn married Joe Di Lascio and moved to New Jersey, United States. They raised four children, Lisa, Michael, Jodi, and Janet. Joe Di Lascio died in September 2007.

Swimming career[edit]

Bell first took up swimming lessons in 1946 at Oakwood Pool, joining the Dolphinette Club coached by Alex Duff.[2] In 1947, Bell entered her first long-distance race: a one-mile swim at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) in Lake Ontario.[3] It was at that first race that Bell first met her future coach Gus Ryder, who was coach of the Lakeshore Swimming Club. Bell soon joined the Lakeshore Club and started practicing at the indoor pool of Humberside Collegiate in Toronto.[4]

1954 Lake Ontario swim[edit]

Historic coverage of Bell's swim.
The Globe and Mail, September 10, 1954

On September 8, 1954, at 11:07 pm, Bell started her swim across Lake Ontario from Youngstown, New York,[5] at virtually the same time as world famous United States long-distance swimmer Florence Chadwick. The Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) in Toronto had offered Chadwick $10,000 to swim the lake as a publicity effort for the annual exhibition.[6] The offer to Chadwick had disappointed Canadian swimmers, Bell included, who had expected the CNE to hold a marathon race. Because of the criticism, the CNE decided to allow other swimmers, at first as part of a relay race, but Bell decided to try the whole swim herself. According to Bell, she "did it for Canada."[7] Bell took on the challenge without pay with the encouragement of Alexandrine Gibb, a Toronto Daily Star reporter. A third swimmer, Torontonian Winnie Roach, who had swam the English Channel, also decided to swim the lake.[8]

After several hours, Chadwick was forced to give up with stomach pains and vomiting at 6 am.[9] Roach quit at about three-quarters distance, due to cramps.[10] Bell swam for 20 hours and 59 minutes before she finally reached a breakwater near the Boulevard Club, west of the CNE grounds. The planned route straight across the lake was 51.5 km (32 mi), but she actually had to swim much further because of strong winds and the lack of modern navigation equipment. Waves that day were almost 5 m high, (up to 15 ft), water temperature was 21 °C (65 °F) and lamprey eels were attacking her legs and arms.

Bell kept up her strength with Pablum, corn syrup, and lemon juice with water, along with heroic encouragement from her boat crew, including fellow swimmer Joan Cooke and her coach, Gus Ryder.[11] Radio stations broadcast hourly reports of her progress and rival newspapers published “extra” editions throughout the day. At the start, Bell was accompanied by two boats, but a flotilla of boats gathered around her by mid-day.[12] When she finally arrived at about 8:15 p.m., a crowd estimated at over 250,000 was gathered to see her arrive.[13] CNE officials had hoped that Bell would arrive at the CNE waterfront, where a grandstand had been set up, but Ryder guided her to Sunnyside where the amusement park was brightly lit and she could navigate to, and the waves were smaller.[14]

Bell was the first person ever to swim the 32 miles (51 km) distance. The CNE decided to give Bell the $10,000 prize, and she was later given numerous gifts, including a car, television, clothing, and furniture. In an article, Bell later thanked the Toronto community for the support, especially Alexandrine Gibb, the Star reporter.[15]

Other swims[edit]

In 1955, she became the youngest person to swim the English Channel and in 1956, she swam the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the Pacific coast. She retired that year from swimming.

Awards and recognition[edit]

Dedication plaque for Marilyn Bell Park

In 1954, Bell was named the Canadian Newsmaker of the Year by the Canadian Press, awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's athlete of the year and awarded the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as Canadian female athlete of the year. Bell was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 1958. In 1993 she entered the Canadian Swimming Hall of Fame and was named one of Canada's top athletes of the century. She was inducted into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 1997.[16] In 2002, Bell (now Marilyn Bell Di Lascio) was presented with the Order of Ontario.

The national Historic Sites and Monuments Board designated Bell's crossing of the lake a National Historic Event in 2005, and a federal plaque was erected in 2008 near the site of her landfall.[17][18] Another plaque is mounted on the base of a statue of a lion along Lake Shore Boulevard by the Government of Ontario Building of the CNE.

Parkland near the location where Bell arrived is now named Marilyn Bell Park. In 2009, the Lakeshore Swimming Club of Toronto held the first annual Marilyn Bell Swim Classic, a meet sanctioned by Swim Ontario. In 2010, a ferry boat to serve the Toronto Island Airport was named the Marilyn Bell 1. The name was chosen as the top name in a contest held by the Toronto Port Authority.[19]

The story of Bell's historic swim was told in the 2001 made-for-TV film Heart: The Marilyn Bell Story with Caroline Dhavernas portraying Marilyn Bell.


  • McAllister, Ron (1954). Swim to glory: the story of Marilyn Bell and the Lakeshore Swimming Club. Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart. 
  • McDonald, David (1981). For the record: Canada’s greatest women athletes. Toronto, Ontario: Mesa Associates. 
  • Wise, S.F.; Fisher, Douglas (1974). Canada’s sporting heroes. Don Mills, Ontario: General Publishing Co. 
  • Tivy, Patrick (2003). Marilyn Bell. Canmore, Alberta: Altitude Publishing Canada Ltd. ISBN 1551539640. 
  1. ^ Tivy 2003, pp. 27–28.
  2. ^ Tivy 2003, p. 28.
  3. ^ Tivy 2003, p. 31.
  4. ^ Tivy 2003, p. 35.
  5. ^ Tivy 2003, p. 13.
  6. ^ Tivy 2003, p. 17.
  7. ^ Tivy 2003, pp. 17–18.
  8. ^ Tivy 2003, pp. 18–19.
  9. ^ Tivy 2003, pp. 69–70.
  10. ^ Tivy 2003, p. 90.
  11. ^ Tivy 2003, p. 96.
  12. ^ Tivy 2003, p. 100.
  13. ^ Tivy 2003, p. 115.
  14. ^ Tivy 2003, p. 104.
  15. ^ "Thanks for Star Backing Voiced by Marilyn, Ryder". The Toronto Daily Star. September 16, 1954. p. 20. 
  16. ^ "Marilyn Bell". Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. Retrieved 24 September 2014. 
  17. ^ Historic Sites and Monuments Board designation
  18. ^ Federal plaque to Marilyn Bell at
  19. ^ "Winning names for Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport vessels announced by Toronto Port Authority" (Press release). Toronto Port Authority. January 7, 2010. Retrieved January 8, 2010. 

External links[edit]