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'Canada's sweetheart': Marilyn Bell, the great strait swimmer

Even in her exhausted state, the sight struck the swimmer as bizarre.

Men in brogues stood in the water below a cliff at the edge of Beacon Hill Park, their pant legs darkened by lapping waves. Others had wandered in so far the chilly water was to their waists. Why were they shivering in the water with their clothes on?

They were waiting for her.

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Ten hours and 38 minutes earlier, Marilyn Bell stepped off a sand spit called Ediz Hook in Washington state to enter the frigid Juan de Fuca Strait. She emerged at a small bay below the park, wearing a one-piece bathing suit, a swimming cap and goggles. She was guided to the spot by bonfires set by residents who flocked to the beach to cheer the teenaged swimmer dubbed "Canada's sweetheart."

On Aug. 23, 1956, the marathon swimmer conquered waves, rip tides and bone-chilling waters about 8-degrees C to complete the crossing. The strait was the final jewel in her personal Triple Crown after conquering Lake Ontario and the English Channel.

Soon after, she retired her swim suit, got married, raised a family.

On Sunday, another young Canadian swimmer, Annaleise Carr, 14, crossed Lake Ontario to raise money for a summer camp for children with cancer. She landed at Marilyn Bell Park, named after her hero.

The hero is 74 now, a retired schoolteacher and widowed mother of four and grandmother of five. She lives in a continuing care retirement home in New York, where she eagerly followed Miss Carr's progress across the lake.

The pair, members of a rare sorority, spoke by telephone afterwards, comparing mid-swim diets (pablum in corn syrup for Marilyn, chocolate for Annaleise).

The teenager's triumph has renewed interest in her predecessor's feats. They remain fresh in the memory although they occurred more than a half-century ago.

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"I always think about Victoria in August," Marilyn Bell Di Lascio said on Tuesday.

She had been lured to Vancouver Island under the sponsorship of the Toronto Telegram and the Victoria Daily Times, newspapers involved in circulation wars.

She roomed at the Old Charming Inn at 1420 Beach Ave., which faced the placid waters of Oak Bay in which she trained daily, swimming out to Jimmy Chicken Island (more formally known as Mary Tod Island).

"I was never very happy going out each morning, because I knew what I was facing," she said. "The folks would be rocking on their chairs on the verandah with their tea. They'd say, 'Make sure you're dressed warmly,' which didn't make a lot of sense because I was going to take everything off to get into the freezing waters."

To her everlasting regret, her first attempt to cross the strait ended in failure about eight kilometres from shore. The effort also created controversy, as her coach, Gus Ryder, allowed her several minutes in the water during which she did not make a stroke. Her limp body was eventually lifted out. Some feared the coach risked her health, if not her life, although the swimmer insists to this day she was never in any danger.

Only 18 at the time, she felt her failure meant she had let down a nation. She became even more determined to complete the crossing.

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On her second attempt, following the ocean-going tug Island Champion piloted by Capt. Ellice Cavin, she shouted out, "This time I'm not getting out."

"OK, you're my girl," the captain replied.

How were the conditions?

"Cold," she said. "Cold. So very, very cold. Choppy, too."

Metre-high waves and a sharp chop did not dissuade her. She had entered the water with a single instruction from her coach: "Swim home to Canada."

She completed the 29-kilometre passage to the cheers of spectators lining the beach and cliff. They gathered by the thousands. To this day, she describes crossing the strait as her most challenging swim.

The next year, on her wedding day, the city unveiled a cairn above the beach on which she landed. Nearly three decades would pass before she got to see it, after visiting Expo 86 in Vancouver. Three of her children have also made pilgrimages to Victoria to see the cairn.

On Tuesday, she went for a swim in the pool at her retirement home. She did a flutter kick on her back, eased a back sore from a degenerative bone condition by spending 75 minutes in the warm water.

"Not Olympian," she said, "but good enough for me."

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