Bell, Marilyn (1937—)

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Bell, Marilyn (1937—)

Canadian swimmer and first person to swim nonstop across Lake Ontario. Born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on October 19, 1937; eldest daughter of Sydney Thomas (an accounting clerk) and Grace (Phillips) Bell; attended St. Mary's School, Toronto, and Loretta College School, Toronto.

On September 9, 1954, at 11:59 pm, a freckled, 119-pound teenager touched breakwater and was hauled ashore after a record 24 hour, 59 minute swim across the black, icy waters of Lake Ontario. Canadian Marilyn Bell had begun the marathon at 11 pm the previous evening, competing against American Florence Chadwick and Canadian Winnie Roach Leuszler . (The Canadians were swimming in defiance of the Canadian National Exhibition [C.N.E.] rules that only sanctioned Americans for the competition.) At 4:30 in the morning, Chadwick and Leuszler had been hauled out of the water, ill and exhausted. Battling 12-foot waves and blood-sucking lampreys, Bell was barely hanging on, swimming with her arms only, her legs dead weight. After rubbing herself with liniment sent out to her by an escort boat, she struggled on. Food (predigested cereal, corn syrup and lemon juice) was passed to her each hour; notes of encouragement scribbled on a blackboard were held high for her to see. By afternoon, when it seemed she couldn't go on, one of her friends swam beside her for a few minutes. By evening, Bell was merely treading water. Although her father wanted to take her out of the water, her coach prodded her on, calling "fifteen minutes more." The C.N.E., relaxing its rules, now offered a $10,000 prize, while an anonymous Air Force officer added another $6,000 incentive. When Bell finally made it to shore and into a waiting ambulance, she had become a national celebrity. She later said she had made the swim "for the honor of Canada."

Marilyn Bell was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on October 19, 1937, the eldest daughter of Sydney Thomas Bell, an accounting clerk, and Grace Phillips Bell. Due to her father's job transfers, Marilyn spent her childhood on the move, often living in hotel rooms when the family could not find housing. Taught to swim by her dad when she was four, she began to take the sport seriously at the Oakwood Swimming Pool in Toronto, where she won her first medal for swimming a mile in 40 minutes. The following year, at age 12, she began training with championship coach Gus Ryder. Around this time, Bell also became interested in instructing children partially paralyzed by polio, and by the time she was 14, in addition to training, she was employed as a children's swimming coach at the Club. Ryder entered her in her first marathon in July 1954. To everyone's surprise, she finished seventh in the 26-mile swim.

Five days after her spectacular conquest of Lake Ontario in 1954, Bell was "near collapse," reported the Washington Post and Times Herald, not so much from the swim but from the resulting furor and public appearances. After stints on radio and television shows in Canada, she flew to New York to guest on Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town." Gifts totalling $50,000 poured in, and, though she turned down an offer from Hollywood in order to complete her education, she did agree to star in a documentary film about her historic swim.

The next summer, the Toronto Telegram offered Bell $15,000 to swim the English Channel. Accepting the challenge, she made the crossing in 14 hours, 36 minutes, becoming the youngest swimmer ever to accomplish the feat. Hailed by Mayor Nathan Phillips as the "sweetheart of all Canada," she was also named "Woman of the Year," for the second year in a row, by the women editors of the Canadian Press.

On March 26, 1956, to honor Bell's Lake Ontario swim, a plaque engraved with her image as she stroked through the water was mounted on a building near the spot where she had touched shore. It was dedicated by Premier Leslie M. Frost with the Ontario Legislature in attendance. Described as a gentle, caring woman, Bell continued her education and her work with children.


Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography 1956. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1956.

Spires, Randi. "Our Marilyn: Miss… or Myth? Kamikazi Hearts," in Canadian Woman Studies/ Les Cahiers de la Femme. Summer 1988.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts