This month marks Cliff Lumsdon’s birthday. He would have been 91.
That name, along with Marilyn Bell, may be familiar if you spend time along the western shoreline of Lake Ontario. Together, they represent a lost history of the city, and a legacy worth reclaiming.
There was a time when the world’s best swimmers flocked to Toronto. In those years, Cliff Lumsdon was one of the strongest open-water swimmers in the world. Among his many honours, he dominated the annual races at the shores of the Canadian National Exhibition.
Yes, Toronto was once an international destination for marathon swimming.
In 1954, in lieu of their annual race, the CNE instead offered $10,000 to accomplished American swimmer Florence Chadwick to swim Lake Ontario. Ms. Chadwick didn’t get across, but 16-year-old Marilyn Bell did: On the evening of Sept. 9, some 250,000 Torontonians gathered to welcome Ms. Bell home.
A quarter of a million people, cheering on a marathon swimmer.
In the decades since, marathon swimming has faded from the popular imagination. Lake Ontario became a working lake. Industrial pollutants, algae blooms, invasive species. Condominium towers blocked off the Toronto shoreline. Sprawling development overwhelmed aging infrastructure, letting raw sewage routinely spill into the rivers and harbour. Toronto beaches were often closed for stretches of the summer, or permanently, because of high E. coli levels.
Nonetheless, people were still swimming across Lake Ontario: Among them, Cindy Nicholas and Vicki Keith, both names familiar to Torontonians, set records in the lake and around the world. In the mid-1970s, after a tragic death, the province mandated Solo Swims of Ontario to oversee crossing attempts. But marathon swimming no longer drew vast cheering crowds and excited news coverage.
More typical was the query: “You swim in there?”
Swimmers are a critical bellwether. Toronto-based environmental lawyer and water advocate Mark Mattson, one of the forces behind the #SwimDrinkFish movement and the wildly popular Gord Downie Swim Pier in Kingston, puts the point succinctly: “Swimmers are needed now more than ever. Swimmers are the front line of opening access to clean water. Like seeing eagles in the tall spruce, l like seeing swimmers in the near shore waters.”
Today, Lake Ontario is cleaner, more swimmable, than it has been in years. There are, of course, continuing challenges, but concerted efforts by governments and communities, and by tireless advocacy groups such as Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, have seen dramatic improvements. Toronto beaches now routinely pass international “blue flag” water quality standards. Swimmers, paddlers, even surfers enjoy our waters all year round.
Yet marathon swims arriving at Toronto are not getting easier, for reasons that have little to do with the physical and mental challenges of the sport.
Boat traffic around Toronto has become increasingly hazardous to swimmers and paddlers, especially given the recent obsession with fast “personal watercraft” sport vessels, more suited to reckless speeds than the safety of others.
Insurance is another issue: Cities are increasingly concerned with risk and liability. Marathon swimmers, as well as so-called “wild swimmers,” are mysterious creatures, not fitting tidily into familiar categories of recreation and risk. This leads to a widespread sentiment that swimming must be supervised, limited to marked-off sections of water that barely allow enough space for marathon swimmers to warm up.
Solo Swims has long worked productively with the city and harbour authorities, but increasingly, marathon swims are just another recreational activity that are lumped in with the likes of waterfront weddings, party cruises, mass-participation sports events, beach festivals and yacht regattas. Our insurance obligations have risen accordingly.
That’s a problem: Between a proliferation of recreational watercraft and the complexities of managing so many competing water uses, Toronto risks losing a vital part of its heritage. An escorted marathon swim is nothing like, say, a triathlon or an executive yacht dinner party. The city and the province need to recognize this, and formally enshrine that recognition to protect this distinctive use of our waters.
This is part of a broader vision, wherein Toronto joins livable cities such as Copenhagen in reimagining their waterfronts as places where everyone can find joy, wonder, inspiration, quiet contemplation – and, yes, can swim without fear of ear infections or being maimed by careless boat operators. Toronto can be a city that doesn’t simply leave the waterfront as a battleground between industry and wealthy property owners. Nor is that battle inevitable: Everyone wins when we’re committed to safe and accessible water.
This summer will again see ordinary people do extraordinary things, completing one of the world’s most beautiful and challenging marathon swims. We need to make sure these wonderful moments can continue, because the dreams of aspiring lake swimmers still define Toronto and our waters.
We need to ensure that marathon swimming is a protected activity, a vital part of our heritage, and a hopeful vision of our shared future on this extraordinary Great Lake.
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