In 1954, Florence Chadwick was one of the world's most famous swimmers. The 34 year-old American had crossed the English Channel in record time. She'd been the first woman to swim the 26 miles (of shark habitat) between Catalina Island and the California coast. She appeared in movies and on television. She was a celebrity. And in 1954, that's exactly what the Canadian National Exhibition was looking for.
Monday, June 14, 2010
Marilyn Bell Kicks America's Ass
The CNE had started off as a farmer's fair all the way back in 1879, but in the years after WWII it was moving away from those agricultural roots toward a more modern feel. And that involved things like promoting the 1954 edition of the fair by offering Chadwick $10,000 if she successfully became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario.
Of course, the idea of a Canadian icon like the Ex offering the prize to an American seemed like an insult to some, including at least a couple of Canadian swimmers. Winnie Roach and Marilyn Bell were younger than Chadwick, but they were already accomplished long-distance swimmers. (Roach had actually been the first Canadian to swim the Channel—as she stood dripping on the beach at Dover in her bathing suit, her face all messed up from a jellyfish sting, a British customs official asked her if she had anything to declare.) Annoyed at the CNE's snub, both Roach and Bell decided that they would try the 52 km crossing at the same time as Chadwick. And so, on the night of September the 8th, all three women entered the waters of New York State and aimed for Toronto.
The water was rough. Strong winds whipped up the waves, which towered nearly five meters high. Below the surface lamprey eels—hideous and parasitic, some nearly a meter long and armed with round, toothy mouths used to latch onto fish and feed off their body fluids (their Wikipedia page actually says that, "body fluids")—were everywhere, attacking legs and arms and bodies. After only a few hours, stomach cramps forced Chadwick from the water. Soon after that, Roach followed, leaving the 16 year-old Bell as the last swimmer in the lake.
She had been pushed off course by the winds and, on at least one occasion, had been disoriented enough to swim in the wrong direction. But she kept on, through the night and into the next day. Radio stations began providing regular updates on her progress. Local newspapers printed one extra edition after another. And finally, at about 8:15 pm, nearly 21 hours after she first entered the water, a cold and exhausted Bell reached a breakwater just south of Sunnyside. She had officially become the very first person to swim across Lake Ontario.
A roaring crowd of three-hundred thousand was waiting to welcome her home.
The CNE eventually decided to give her the $10,000 they had offered to Chadwick, but for Bell, of course, that had never been the point. "I don’t think I was sure I could make it," she later admitted, "but I wasn’t so sure Florence Chadwick could make it either. The challenge for me was to go one stroke further than the American. As corny as it sounds… I did it for Canada.”