The True Story of Lake Ontario

The True Story of Lake Ontario

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

The True Story of Lake Ontario

Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.

Winston S. Churchill

There were no stars at eleven o’clock that September night, and no moon. It was overcast and windy, and very, very black. Taking a deep breath, I dove in and so began the night that would change my life forever. When I surfaced and looked around, I couldn’t see where the lake ended and the sky began. I couldn’t see anything, so I just started swimming.

When I had said good-bye to my coach, Gus, earlier, I was very worried about finding him in the escort boat. I was nervous about getting lost in the dark and not nearly as brave as I’ve been portrayed. Gus just looked me in the eye and said, “When you dive in the water, keep your eyes open, and swim north, and I will find you.

I believed him. Gus Ryder had been my coach and mentor ever since I joined Toronto’s Lakeshore Swimming Club. Although I’d been swimming since I was nine—and always put my heart into it—I was never very fast and never very good. But I was so determined.

In 1948, when Barbara Ann Scott won the World and Olympic figure-skating championships, she captivated me. She became my role model, and I wanted to go to the Olympics and win a gold medal swimming for Canada. When Toronto gave her a ticker-tape parade, I went by myself and stood on the corner of Bay and Queen. As she drove past sitting on the back of the convertible, I thought she was so wonderful—the perfect Canadian girl—and everything I wanted to be. After seeing her, I became even more determined.

When I was eleven, Gus had watched me finish a one-mile race in freezing cold Lake Ontario. He introduced himself, saying, “Marilyn, you have so much determination and so much heart, if you work at it you’ll be a fine swimmer.” I started swimming for Gus, and was soon totally involved with the club. We trained for hours in open water, and every time I got into the lake, I had to deal with my fears. I was petrified of fish, of weeds, of whatever might be in there. I did it anyway, but no matter how hard I worked, I still came in third or fourth.

By 1952 it was clear I was never going to the Olympics, so I turned professional. I looked forward each year to the competition hosted by the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), and I just knew I was ready to win. Then, in the winter of 1954, the CNE announced they had challenged the American long-distance swimmer Florence Chadwick to swim the thirty-two miles across Lake Ontario from Youngstown, New York, to Toronto. They also announced that the annual professional swims for Canadians would be cancelled. I was sixteen that year and bitterly disappointed.

In July of 1954, I swam the Atlantic City Marathon. There, I met a young lifeguard named Joe Di Lascio. Having never been in the ocean before, I was petrified. I said to Joe, “Excuse me, are there fish in here?” Like everybody else, Joe never expected me to win. But when the twenty-six-mile race was over, I had won the women’s championship—and Joe had won my heart.

Back in Toronto, there was a lot of controversy around the CNE challenging an American. That’s when Gus suggested I challenge Florence in a race across the lake. The idea had never occurred to me, but it had to Gus, and after Atlantic City, he had made up his mind.

The Toronto Star agreed to back me, in return for an exclusive. I really had no confidence about completing that swim, and the idea of swimming at night terrified me. But I wasn’t sure Florence could make it either. I figured if I could swim one stroke further than her, it would be worth it. I would do it for Gus, and for me, but I would also do it for Canada.

We were to start Monday, September 6, from the Coast Guard station in Youngstown. The forecast was bad, so Florence postponed, and we all went into “waiting mode.” My team, along with the many Star reporters, waited at the Youngstown Yacht Club on the Mona 4, the yacht that would accompany me on my swim. The officials agreed to give us a two-hour notice of when Florence planned to start, allowing us plenty of time to get to the starting point. But, when word came at ten o’clock Wednesday night, there was a mad scramble. They had left us only one hour! There wasn’t enough time for me to go to the starting point with Gus in the escort boat. He had to leave immediately, knowing he wouldn’t get there in time to be beside me when I started. I would have to start alone. But when he left he said, “I will find you,” and I believed him.

Howie, one of the Star reporters, took me by car to the starting point. A few minutes after Florence started, he said, “Okay, Marilyn. Now it’s your turn.” Shortly after that, Winnie Roach, the other Canadian swimmer, began.

It was so dark; the only things I could see were the lights from the boats around Florence. So I did what Gus told me—swam straight out of the Niagara River and just kept going. After what seemed an eternity, I finally heard Gus’s voice—they had found me! With him were George, another Star reporter and Jack, the boatman. Gus had a big flashlight, and he shone it just ahead of my stroke, saying, “Marilyn, just swim to the light and I will get you across this lake.” For the rest of the night, each time I extended my arm for the next stroke, my hand was reaching into that beam of light.

Florence swam for about four or five hours before she quit. But it wasn’t until several hours later, when I was having difficulty, that Gus told me that Florence—and Winnie—were out. I was the only one left, and it was up to me to swim for Canada!

It was a long night. I had to deal with horrible lamprey eels, and my fear of the lake and of the dark. Gus kept me going any way he could. But when I realized the dawn was coming, and the night was almost over, everything changed. It was the most glorious sunrise I’ve ever seen, and one of the most wonderful moments in my life. I thought to myself, Perhaps I’ll be able to do this after all.

Now Gus began writing messages on a chalkboard to distract me and keep my thoughts positive. Once he wrote, “You know you can do it, you can do it for the team!” Another time he wrote, “All the Atlantic City lifeguards are pulling for you.” This referred to Joe, of course. He even wrote, “If you give up, I give up.”

Sometime in the morning, a flotilla of boats began to surround me. Interest in my swim had spread like wildfire all across Canada. When Gus held up the message, “All of Canada is rooting for you,” I wondered, How did all of Canada know I was in the water? But they did!

At the CNE grounds in Toronto, people had started to arrive by the thousands to watch me come in. I knew nothing about that, however. I was just in the lake, in this little cocoon, moving along.

By midday I started falling asleep and veering away from the boat, so Gus brought out my close friend Joan in a water taxi and said, “Joan, you’ve got to go and swim with her and get her attention back.”

I heard a splash and suddenly Joan was right in my face saying, “I’m here to swim with you Marilyn. Come on!” She swam with me for a while, and I perked right up.

By now the boats that surrounded me were cutting in front of me, jockeying for space. The exhaust, oil and gas began to cause problems. My team fought quite a battle to protect my space. Eventually they were successful, because all the jockeying stopped.

Somewhere on the lake, later in the day, I began to experience a very unusual, hard-to-describe spirit of unity and togetherness. For a short while, competing media or not, it felt like there were no divisions and everybody had only one goal, and that was to get me to Toronto. I learned later that my family and friends were all praying for me, and that the whole time I was swimming there was always a nun in my school chapel praying for my safety.

At 8:00 P.M., after twenty-one hours in the water, I began approaching the shore. I was suffering from sleep deprivation and not really “present,” but my arms were still going. I later saw a film of the moment when I touched the break wall and an enormous roar went up from the crowd. But I don’t remember that. I remember a lot of confusion, and finally, Gus’s voice breaking through the haze. As they pulled me into the boat I said: “What happened? Did I do it?” And that’s when I heard Gus say, “Oh Marilyn! You did it, you did it, you finished!” At that point I came out of the zone I’d been in and realized I had actually done it. I was amazed because I hadn’t really thought I could. I hadn’t really thought anybody could!

I was stunned when I learned the CNE decided to award me the $10,000 prize money. That night, among the many congratulatory telegrams I received was one that thrilled me to pieces—from Barbara Ann Scott!

The next night I was presented with the prize on the CNE Grandstand stage with the show headliners—Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, who had stopped their show the day before to pray for my safety in the lake. On Monday, Toronto hosted a ticker tape parade for me up Bay Street to city hall. It rained, but the people came out anyway. There were mounted police, marching bands and thousands of people crowding the streets—screaming and yelling and waving at me, while the ticker tape streamed down from every window. Gus and I rode in a big Cadillac convertible, and sat up on the back, just the way Barbara Ann Scott had. When we stopped at the corner of Bay and Queen, the same corner where I had watched Barbara Ann Scott’s parade, I had a flashback. I saw myself standing there five years before—just a kid—with my dream of swimming for Canada.

For many years after my swim, when I returned to Canada, people would come up to me and say, “The day you swam that lake, I was with you.” I hear magnificent stories all the time when I’m home, from people who say things like, “My mother didn’t cook dinner that night. We had baked beans on toast by the radio, because my mother wouldn’t leave it. And we prayed for you.”

All these years later, I am still so deeply touched, and I really think that all those stories are the true story of Lake Ontario.

Marilyn Bell Di Lascio

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