At 8:15 PM on September 9, 1954, an exhausted and nearly numb 16-year-old woman touched the breakwater at Toronto’s Boulevard Club on the seawall along Humber Bay. After nearly 21 hours in freezing water battling five-metre waves, nausea, darkness and vampire-like lamprey eels, Marilyn Bell had done the impossible – she had swum 52 kilometres across Lake Ontario from New York State to Toronto. And 100,000 people turned up on Toronto’s waterfront to cheer her on.
A Toronto native, Bell decided to attempt the swim after a $10,000 prize was offered by the Canadian National Exhibition to an American world-champion swimmer if she could cross the lake. Marilyn felt that a Canadian should also make the attempt despite the fact that the prize was not offered to her. While both swimmers set off on the same day, only Bell successfully made the crossing and was awarded the prize, winning the hearts of Canadians everywhere.
Having conquered Lake Ontario, Bell went on to set a speed record for swimming the English Channel in 1955 and later swam the Juan de Fuca Strait in British Columbia. She retired from swimming in 1956.
In 2010, PortsToronto proudly named the new Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport ferry in honour of this living legend, with the ship’s traditional champagne christening done by Marilyn Bell herself.