Women Who Swam across Lake Ontario

When I was a kid, we used to get two newspapers delivered to our house every day: The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. Whenever someone swam across Lake Ontario, it was big news.  This didn’t happen all the time, but I’ve got clear memories of gobbling up all the news about Vicki Keith and Cindy Nicholas.

Vicki Keith is perhaps the most accomplished marathon swimmer in the world. According to the Penguins Can Fly website, she was an unlikely athlete, last to picked for teams in school (why do they even do that thing where kids get to pick their own teams!?).  But she didn’t let that trouble her.  She kept at it and broke all sorts of marathon swim records. Among them: she did the Lake Ontario (54 km from the NY side to the Ontario side) crossing five different times; she is the only person to do a successful double-crossing (104 km) of Lake Ontario; in 1988 she swam all five of the Great Lakes; she is the first person to swim across the English Channel doing the butterfly; and she also did the butterfly around Sydney Harbour (for 14.5 hours).  Not only that:

Vicki’s dream has always been to make a difference in other peoples lives, so, in 2005, when the need for new opportunities for children with disabilites in Kingston, Ontario became apparent, Vicki came out of swimming retirement, and spent 63 hours and 40 minutes in Lake Ontario, completing 80.2 kilometres butterfly, setting 2 world records and raising over $200,000 for the Kingston Family YMCA This brought her lifetime fundraising total to over one million dollars.

Lots of strong swimmers have difficulty sustaining a good butterfly stroke for even 50 metres. To do the butterfly for almost 64 hours and cover 80.2 km, you must really care about your cause and be phenomenally strong.

It’s no surprise that Vicki Keith has been awarded the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest honour.

Here’s Vicki Keith doing the butterfly across Lake Winnipeg:

Vicki Keith crossing Lake Winnipeg with butterfly stroke.
Vicki Keith crossing Lake Winnipeg with butterfly stroke.

Cindy Nicholas crossed Lake Ontario in 1974 at the age of 16 faster than any other swimmer ever had: 15 hours and 10 minutes. This time still stands as the women’s record. She was from (and still lives in) Scarborough, Ontario, the same Toronto suburb where I grew up. Scarborough always got a bad rap from the rest of Toronto, who often referred to it as “Scarberia.”  Cindy Nicholas’ success gave us Scarberians something to gloat about.

Through the course of her career as a marathon swimmer, she crossed the English Channel 19 times, including 10 two-way swims, according to this report on the Ontario Solo Swims website.

She’s a members of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the Order of Canada. And when I was a kid, I wanted (and got) a swimsuit just like hers. Here she is in that very suit:

Cindy Nicholas, poolside.
Cindy Nicholas, poolside.

Marilyn Bell crossed Lake Ontario on September8th, 1954, the first person who managed to make it across.  According to this dramatic recounting of the story,

Marilyn Bell waded into the frigid waters of Lake Ontario at Youngstown, NY, at 11:07 p.m. Wednesday, September 8, 1954. It wasn’t supposed to be a race, but she made it into one. The Canadian National Exhibition had offered $10,000 to American swimmer Florence Chadwick to swim the lake. Many thought it was unfair not to include Canadians in the event. Only two others took up the challenge, Winnie Roach Leuszla and a 16-year old student, Marilyn Bell.

Marilyn’s coach Gus Ryder was in a boat ahead of her. It was dark and no one knew where the other two swimmers were. No one ashore on the other side had any idea of the drama that was to unfold as Marilyn battled 4-metre waves, lamprey eels, exhaustion and numbness. Ryder shouted encouragement and fed his swimmer corn syrup from a cup.

At dawn, Marilyn had covered 22 kilometres. She did not know it but she had already eclipsed Chadwick, who had become violently ill in the choppy water. When Marilyn became numb and glassy-eyed at 10:30 a.m. Ryder took out a black board and wrote on it “FLO IS OUT.” Soon Leuszla was pulled out as well. Marilyn’s best friend Joan Cooke shouted encouragement from the boat and Marilyn started swimming again. Meanwhile, word was spreading not only across Toronto but across all of Canada. A flotilla of media appeared and tens of thousands— eventually 250,000— gathered on shore.

At 6:30 in the evening, Marilyn reached her limit and Ryder ignored her father’s wishes to pull her out. He asked Joan to swim beside her friend. Driven west by the current to Sunnyside, Marilyn finally touched the breakwater at 8:06 p.m. Because of the currents she had actually swum 64 kilometres. Pandemonium broke loose as Marilyn came ashore, the undisputed heroine of all Canada. Proud Canadians showered her with more than $50,000 in prizes and gifts.

Here is Marilyn Bell at the beginning of her swim:

Marilyn Bell about to leave from Youngstown New York, September 8, 1954.
Marilyn Bell about to leave from Youngstown New York, September 8, 1954. (Photo from Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame/X981.32.1.35

Torontonians were so thrilled with her success that they held a ticker tape parade in her honour:

Ticker tape parade in Marilyn Bell's honour, September 1954, Toronto. (photo from Canada's Sports Hall of Fame).
Ticker tape parade in Marilyn Bell’s honour, September 1954, Toronto. (photo from Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame).

This summer, on August 4th, 2014, Trinity Arsenault became the youngest person ever to make the swim across Lake Ontario. At age 14, Trinity left from Niagara on the Lake and touched ground again at Marilyn Bell Park in Toronto. At 14 years and 70 days old, she nudged out Annaleise Carr who had successfully swum the lake in 2012.  I wonder what these amazing teenagers have planned for the rest of their marathon swim careers?

Trinity Arsenault:

Trinity Arsenault warms up after her chilly swim.
Trinity Arsenault warms up after her chilly swim. Photo: David Ritchie/CBC http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/trinity-arsenault-14-successfully-swims-across-lake-ontario-1.2727165

Annaleise Carr:

Annaleise Carr takes in some nutrition during her Lake Ontario crossing. Photo credit: Toronto Star. http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2012/08/26/annaleise_carr_lake_ontario_swimmers_team_key_to_her_successful_crossing.html
Annaleise Carr takes in some nutrition during her Lake Ontario crossing. Photo credit: Tim Alamenchiak/Toronto Star. http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2012/08/26/annaleise_carr_lake_ontario_swimmers_team_key_to_her_successful_crossing.html