Today in Swim/Aquatic History: 50th Anniversary Bell Strait of Juan de Fuca Swim

By Chuck Kroll

On August 23, 1956, 50 years ago today, 18-year old Marilyn Bell of Toronto, Ontario became the first female and first Canadian to swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca US/Juan de Fuca Strait CA between Port Angeles, Washington and Victoria, British Columbia.

As she came ashore after swimming 29 kilometers/13 miles in 10 hours 38 minutes there was a crowd of 15,000 gathered on the shores to meet her. The water temperature had averaged 10 degrees Celsius/ 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Two days later, on August 25, the City of Victoria held a parade for Marilyn and 30,000 turned out to honor this ‘plucky girl’ dubbed “Brilliant Marilyn.” In swimming this stretch of water, she captured the hearts of Victorians as she had swam the entire country of Canada two years before when she swam across Lake Ontario.

In fact, Bell became famous throughout Canada when she became the first person to ever swim across Lake Ontario from the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Youngstown, New York to the Toronto shores.

On September 8, 1954, at age 16, just two months since her initial open water race, first place at the Atlantic City Centennial Marathon, she and fellow Canadian, Winnie Roach Leuszler age 28, entered the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) race as the only other solo entrants besides the distinguished professional swimmer, 35-year old Florence Chadwick.

Although both swimmers wound up going through some difficulty with some rough water and ensuing sea sickness, it was Chadwick that had to be pulled from the water as she experienced some severe vomiting and could barely tread water as her race ended in its seventh hour.

Marilyn’s sickness and exhaustion nearly overwhelmed her but with encouragement from her coach Gus Ryder and the rest of her support crew, including friend Joan Cooke who jumped in and swam a bit with her, Bell was able to complete the crossing. Her swim lasted 20 hours and 56 minutes covering a distance of 51 kilometers/31.6 miles while she actually swam some 64 kilometers/39.6 miles.

A crowd of more than 100,000 were gathered to great her at 8:06 p.m., and the news of her crossing was broadcast nationwide on the radio and on the thousands of televisions in Canada. The rival Toronto newspapers, The Telegram and The Star covered the swim with breaking news and special editions with banner headlines.

While Chadwick's arrangement with the event sponsors would have had a $10,000 payday had she won, the event itself did not have a pay out for Bell. Two local businessmen put up $1,000 and $100 respectively and that became her prize, along with the respect and adulation of most the entire nation of Canada and beyond.

When Marilyn swam to Victoria, on this day 50 years ago, it was sponsored by The Toronto Telegram with the Victoria Daily Times being its local counterpart. Not to be out done in Toronto, The Star had Victoria’s Daily Colonist newspaper sending them up to date breaking stories as Marilyn swam the frigid waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

They had been writing about her since her first attempt from Victoria to Port Angeles on August 10. On this swim, she fell 8 kilometers short nearly drowning in the process. Though her coach received some criticism from half of the media, Ryder was quoted by the sponsoring newspapers saying “she was in no danger at any time.” Marilyn herself says “It was just a bad day mentally for me and I gave up.”

The next day, however, she announced she would again make the attempt from Port Angeles to Victoria. For her first failed attempt, Marilyn won $20,000 and for her successful swim another $10,000.

As a retired school teacher and now motivational speaker, she continues to use the swim of Juan de Fuca as an example of failure and then the glory coming in not being afraid to try again, and that not everyone can succeed every time they try to do something.

Today, a cairn (stone monument with a plaque) marks the spot on Dallas Road in Beacon Hill Park where Marilyn Bell swam and stood ashore in Victoria. The cairn was unveiled on the day she got married on September 28, 1957.

At the Atlantic City swim back in 1954 she met Joe Di Lascio, a Lifeguard with the Atlantic City Beach Patrol. They now live in Southampton, N.J. east of Philadelphia and have four children and five grandchildren.

In 2001, actress Caroline Dhavernas played the lead in Heart: The Marilyn Bell Story, a made for television biopic.

References for this submission include:

Two books published on Bell:

‘Swim to Glory’ The story of Marilyn Bell and the Lakeshore Swimming Club by Ron McAllister, McClelland & Stewart Limited Publishers, Toronto, November 1954.

‘Marilyn Bell’ the Heart-Stopping Tale of Marilyn’s Record-Breaking Swim by Patrick Tivy, Amazing Stories Sport/Human Interest series, Altitude Publishing, Alberta, 2003.

Also thanks to and credit to Stories by Sandra McCulloch in Monitor section of Victoria’s Times Colonist Sunday, August 20, 2006.

And to the wonderful ladies at the archive section of the Royal B.C. Museum who helped me last Friday to find perhaps an original recording of this epic crossing (we will soon have it on tape) and directed me to the cairn on Dallas Road.

The cairn overlooks a most spectacular view of the Strait and the Olympics on the Washington side. The array of boats on the vast waters and the joggers, dogs on a path in a non leash area and families walking the southern Victorian coastline make for a beautiful sunny day setting, only enhanced by the wetter weather that will again turn the summer browned grass shades of green, blending into the rest of the natural beauty of this region. Beacon Hill Park is a place of splendor.

Also, a place of splendor this past week was swimming by the U.S. National Swimming Team at the Pan Pacific Championships was the Commonwealth pool in Saanich, B.C. just north of Victoria. Congratulations to the entire U.S. Team, coaches, officials and administrators. Especially to World Record breakers Michael, Aaron, Brendon, Neil, Cullen & Jason. Wow. What a wonderful performance.

Also, my personal thank you to our Canadian hosts, special props to Brock Turner and the rest of the international media who made me feel more than welcome as a rookie in their midst. Also thanks to the event sponsors who hopefully feel they got there monies worth. As a fan, I appreciate their support.

And my final shout out is to all of you who, friends and new, I got to see and talk with however long or brief. What a great time! Don’t forget to tune in or set your VCR/DVR/TIVO to NBC this Saturday and Sunday to watch action and highlights from one of the most exciting swim meets in history.

Final bit of historical trivia:
Who was the first person credited with swimming the Strait of Juan de Fuca and when did they accomplish this feat?

Bert Owen Thomas of Tacoma, WA July 8, 1955 crossing in 11hours, 17 minutes

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