In the morning, usually at about 6 a.m., Marilyn Di Lascio hits the pool at Woodland Pond in New Paltz with her friends. The room’s high wooden ceilings look a bit like a church — a metaphor the 76-year-old swimmer enjoys.
The room is her chapel, she says. Even after her brief but epoch-making professional swimming career, and despite a degenerative back condition, water still holds magic for her. It’s still a lot like her first love.
If you don’t know her story — as many Americans outside of hardcore swimmers do not — Marilyn Bell Di Lascio comes across as a nice old lady — charming, polite and quick with a joke. She’s down-to-earth, humble to the point of self-deprecation at times.
Talking to her, it’s a bit hard to believe she’s an international swimming legend — the first person ever to succeed at swimming across Lake Ontario.
But at age 16, back in 1954, up against a famous American shoo-in, she conquered the big lake when no one said it could be done — much less by a woman. In doing so, she became a Canadian national sports hero.
Early days: Learning to swim
Originally from Toronto, Marilyn Bell started swimming late in life compared to some. “I didn’t learn to swim until I was about 9 years old,” she said. “I took swimming lessons for the first time that summer. I took to it. I loved it. I can still remember the first time I floated by myself. I can remember that sensation of popping up in the water.”
By the end of the summer, her swim coach invited her to join a competitive swim club. At first she didn’t have rhythmic breathing in her skill set. The first race she won, she didn’t breathe in the water at all — which left the official timing her swim a little baffled.
“I remember saying, ‘I haven’t learned how’,” she said. “So that was like, ‘okay if you can hold your breath a long time, that helps’.”
She swam her first mile in a pool by age 10. “Nobody thought I could do it. Not even my teacher. But he said, ‘Well try. Go for as long as you can and see what happens.’ And I did.”
Far from being a champion early on, the young Marilyn Bell was an underdog.
“I would usually place fourth of fifth. On a really super good day, when one of the top swimmers didn’t show up, maybe I would place third and get a medal,” she remembered. “I usually did well on a relay — not because I was so great, but because the other girls were so fast.”
Early on, she had endurance, but the speed didn’t come. “I could never get there based on my own ability — no matter how hard I tried. I tried so hard. My parents sent me to different instructors to try to refine my stroke. I just couldn’t go as fast as I wished I could.”
One of those new swim instructors happened to be Gus Ryder — who became one of Canada’s most famous coaches. Both he and Marilyn were eventually inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. She’s also an International Swimming Hall of Famer.
He saw something in her that others didn’t. Where others saw obstinacy, he saw determination. “It was during that period of time that he knew I was working so hard. I would be the first one into the pool, the last one to get out.
“He said, ‘You never complained. You just did everything I told you to do. There was just one thing missing: You weren’t hungry enough. You were more concerned about your team members doing well. So you didn’t concentrate’.”
Something about the way she swam gave him an idea. He started grooming her to become a long-distance open water swimmer. At age 13, financial difficulties at home almost ended her sports career before it started.
“My parents didn’t have a lot of money,” she said. “I don’t even think you would call us a middle-class family. So money was very scarce, and my parents decided that since I wasn’t excelling — and it was costing money for me to swim — that they were going to pull me out of the program. That for me was like a catastrophe. I couldn’t imagine a life without swimming.”
The team was a huge part of her social life back then. Also, she taught at Ryder’s now-famous Lakeshore Swim Club, teaching swim lessons to the physically disabled.
“I was actually working with handicapped children. That was the era of the polio sweep in the country. And we had a lot of young people — some younger than me, many older than me — who had come down with polio and had been left paralyzed,” she said. “He was one of the first people in the swimming world to say, ‘Hey, we can make a difference here’.”
Ryder worked out a special deal with her parents. Marilyn worked in the office at the swim club’s pool in exchange for continued lessons. “It was really a live-saving gesture to me.”
She started training in hopes of making the 1952 Olympic Games in Finland. She tried out, but the Olympics weren’t in the cards for her. At age 14, she’d turned professional. She swam in a 3-mile, professional women’s race on Lake Ontario. Those early pro races retreaded her old pattern — placing third or fourth — but she was still pleased.
“The first year, I placed fourth. I was thrilled because I’d won $300, which for a kid who had no money was really a lot of money.”
A challenge went out for a marathon swimmer to cross Lake Ontario — from Youngstown, NY to the shore in Toronto. American swimmer Florence Chadwick had been offered a $10,000 prize from the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) to cross the lake. Chadwick was the favorite, because she was the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1950.
Secretly, Gus Ryder started grooming Marilyn Bell to make that swim. But first she needed to prove herself. The Youngstown-to-Toronto route is 32 miles.
“The furthest I think I’d ever swum was 7, 8 miles tops,” she said. Her coach made her train by swimming for 10 hours straight, to prove she could do it. She did.
He signed her up for a 26-mile race around Absecon Island in Atlantic City, NJ. That one race had a huge impact on Marilyn’s personal life. Maybe as much as the Lake Ontario swim, it changed her life.
“The best part about that was that was where I met my future husband. He was a lifeguard on the beach where we were training,” she said.
In Atlantic City, there were 39 swimmers — of which only seven survived the brutal marathon around the island. Marilyn placed seventh overall, but she was the only woman across the finish line. “That was pretty exciting.”
The big lake
For Canadians, that CNE didn’t sponsor a native swimming champion, but instead the American Florence Chadwick created a lot of controversy. As a long shot competitor, considered too young to pose a serious threat, Bell stayed away from the heat.
“I was not one to be a part of controversy. And it was a very controversial issue, of course. And there were other Canadian women that could have easily challenged her,” she explained.
Winnie Roach Leuszler — a famous Canadian swimmer and a mentor and hero to Bell — also threw her hat in and challenged Chadwick. The three women would all set off from Youngstown on Sept. 8, 1954.