Solo Swims of Ontario Inc.

Hall of Fame

Marilyn Bell and The Mystery Woman

The Mystery Lady at the 1954 Lake Ontario Swim

See - Heart: The Marilyn Bell Story
CBC Television, 4th February 2001

The Canadian heroine, Marilyn Bell, triumphed in the 1954 unofficial "race" across Lake Ontario. The so-called "race" ensued after The Canadian National Exhibition offered Florence Chadwick $10,000 to become the first person to cross Lake Ontario.

The photograph at the left has often been reproduced and has been consistently reported as showing the contenders, from left to right, Winnie Roach, Florence Chadwick, and Marilyn Bell at the time of their famous 1954 attempt to become the first person to swim across Lake Ontario.

As with many events driven by the news media, some facts get adjusted a little to suit the publishing deadlines. It always seemed odd to me that the lady in the centre of the photograph was dressed like a movie star while Winnie and Marilyn were in sweat suits either prior to, or after, a swim. The lady in the centre of the photograph was in fact a stand-in for Florence Chadwick and Marilyn Bell's own words, reproduced below, help to explain the events leading up to the taking of the photograph. Words in brackets are Bryan Finlay's editorial notes.

There is one slight misidentification on the (web) site that you might want to correct. I have hesitated to draw attention to it before but since Heart (The Marilyn Bell Story) is due to be aired next year (4th February 2001), it might be timely to correct it. On one of the pages, and it may be mine or Winnie's...there is a photo of Winnie, myself and a third woman who is identified as Flo Chadwick. The lady is not Chadwick, however I can't remember her name. She was, however, a local resident who actually drove me from the Youngstown Marina to the Coastguard Station in time to see Chadwick start her swim. Howie Anderson, the Star Photographer assigned to get me to the swim starting place actually flagged down her car on the road, explained what we were about and the resulting photo was snapped as Chadwick and her entourage made their way to the breakwall at the mouth of the Niagara. Winnie and I had been warned to stay in the background until flo was in the water.
There is another little known anecdote concerning that trip to the Coastguard station. The first car that Howie flagged was driven by a young man who was in a very big hurry to get back to Toronto to cover a story for a Toronto radio station. Howie begged him to do a slight detour and drop us off, but to no avail. Weeks later after the swim I met the same man under very different circumstances in Toronto. Seems that I had been the story he was supposed to cover, but of course at the time he didn't know who I was. When he saw my pictures in the paper following the swim he realized that he could have had the first chapter of story but he let me get away.
That anonymous, kind lady had no idea what an important contribution she made to the history of our sport. She certainly helped to change my life.
Hope life is treating you well and the wind is always at your back. Safe swimming and calm water always. M ;-)

Marilyn's famous crossing of Lake Ontario took place at age 16, as the contenders (who were previous conquerors of the English Channel), Winnie Roach and Florence Chadwick, were unable to complete the swim. The crossing of Lake Ontario has never been easy and the number of successes has been severely restricted by the lake's ability to "invert" after several days of a strong northerly wind. The lake off the Toronto shoreline drops rapidly to a depth of more than 100 m, and the effect of an "inversion" is to bring cold water to the surface from the bottom of the lake. In mid-summer, the "inversion" of the water will drop the surface-water temperatures (for up to 15 km from the Toronto shoreline) from as high as 23-24C (mid 70s F) to 10C (50F) or lower. These potentially low water-temperatures had been a feature of the many professional marathon races that had taken part along the shoreline in front of the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) over the years from 1927. In fact, in 1964 the Challenge of Lake Ontario assumed even greater mythical proportions when the best marathon swimmers of the World all failed to handle the cold in their professional race which started from Port Dalhousie, heading for Toronto, on Thursday 20th August. Included in that race were professional World Champions and Record Holders, with a field that included Abdel Abou-Heif, Judith DeNys, Greta Anderson, Cliff Lumsdon, Herman Willemse, George Park, Kurt Pluntke, and Claudia McPherson. In his book "Wind, Waves, and Sunburn: A brief history of marathon swimming", Conrad Wennerberg gives an enthralling report of this 1964 swim - as well as details of the previous CNE professional races - many of which were plagued by these cold conditions. Successful swimmers who have conquered the Lake on one of its "warm" days may never know the hardships that have beaten so many of their predecessors.

Marilyn's entry into marathon swimming started just prior to the famous 1954 Lake Ontario swim, when she attended, with Cliff Lumsdon, and won the Ladies race at the Atlantic City professional swim. During that swim in New Jersey, Marilyn met her husband-to-be, Chip DiLascio. When they married, Marilyn moved to the USA and, to be able to continue her teaching career, had to relinquish her Canadian citizenship. It is, therefore, most ironic that one of our best-known and beloved Canadian heroines is now ineligible (by Government definitions of eligibility) for national awards such as the Order of Canada ! However, that has not stopped Canadians from embracing Marilyn as one of the Top-10 Canadian Female Athletes of the past century, with two television documentaries being made of her achievement.

Marilyn continues to support marathon swimming in Canada as an active contributor to the organization of Solo Swims of Ontario and in providing a never-hesitating enthusiasm to encourage aspirants of all ages.

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Created: 21st January 2001
Last Updated: 18th March 2003