Ann Meraw lived a life aquatic as much as terrestrial, challenging inland lakes and open seas as a marathon swimmer. She was also celebrated as Canada’s first registered female lifeguard.
Sixty three people were said to have been rescued thanks to her lifesaving expertise – skills she displayed in an exhibition for the visiting George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Vancouver in 1939.
Mrs. Meraw, who died three weeks after her 100th birthday, taught generations of infants to swim as part of an innovative “water babies” program she launched at Vancouver’s Crystal Pool.
Mrs. Meraw first emerged as a national swimming star at the age of 17 in 1934, when she entered a Lake Ontario marathon. Her greatest achievements came in the 1950s on Lake Okanagan in the British Columbia Interior, when she set time and endurance records for swimming. In 1958, she swam 88.5 kilometres from Penticton to Kelowna. The arduous crawl lasted 32 hours, 12 minutes. (For comparison, the 62.5-km journey can be completed comfortably today by car in less than an hour.)
While her feats were celebrated in her home province, where she was awarded the Order of British Columbia, Mrs. Meraw was less well known in the rest of the country, though many had unknowingly watched her in action. In the 1970s, she served as a technical director for the popular CBC Television series The Beachcombers, offering advice while also serving as a double for the actress Juliet Randall in swim scenes.
Barbara Annabelle Mundigel was born on Feb. 23, 1917, in Powell River, a mill town on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, to the former Phoebe Kidd and William Albert Mundigel, a labourer. Her father was an American-born Catholic, her mother an English-born Anglican. Family lore described the infant falling off a log into the water, managing to swim the length of the floating timber before being plucked to safety.
At the age of 10, she learned she was a distance swimmer of ability during a competition held at Britannia Mines, a seaside copper-mining town reachable only by boat. She won three trophies in swimming across Howe Sound and back.
Three years later, a family expedition ended with her once again climbing out of the water ahead of other competitors. “My dad said, ‘take your swimsuit’, so I thought for sure we were going to a picnic because mother was packing a lunch,” she told the Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows (B.C.) Times newspaper. “But my father had entered me in the races.” She won the high-school division in a race across Burrard Inlet, which separates Vancouver from the North Shore.
Organizers originally balked at awarding her a prize because she did not belong to an organized club, so a representative of the Vancouver Amateur Swim Club signed her on the spot.
The long-faced teenager, who was quick to flash a crooked smile, would not remain an amateur for long. In 1934, fans and friends of the teenager raised money during the depths of the Depression to send her to Toronto, where she turned professional to compete in a Lake Ontario marathon organized as part of Canadian National Exhibition attractions.
She stunned observers in Vancouver in 1938, when she defied predictions by completing a swim from English Bay off Vancouver to Snug Cove on Bowen Island, a treacherous seven-kilometre journey against tides so strong that at one point her suit slipped from her body. She finished in 7 hours, 14 minutes – her only nourishment a single chocolate bar.
Her coach, Pat Roach, prepared her for a challenge of the English Channel, an ultimate achievement for marathon swimmers, but the outbreak of war ended that dream. “I didn’t want to be torpedoed,” she quipped. With prize money scarce, she briefly worked as a cake decorator for Woman’s Bakery in Vancouver.
With men away at war, she cracked the traditionally male bastion of lifeguarding in 1943, beginning a career with the city of Vancouver that would last more than four decades. She married a local firefighter and gave birth to a son.
When the Lake Ontario contests were revived after the war, Ms. Meraw returned to competition, though she was by then among the oldest competitors.
Her career seemed to be at an end in 1955, when she only lasted an hour in an attempt to cross the then-unconquered Strait of Juan de Fuca separating Vancouver Island from Washington State. Some 200 spectators cheered her entry into the water, groaning when news arrived she had been pulled out of the choppy waters after swallowing enough saltwater to make her nauseous.
Undeterred, she tried the next year to swim from Penticton to Kelowna, only to be pulled from the water at dawn after 25 hours in the water. “She didn’t quit,” coach Roach insisted at the time. “I ordered her from the water. She was exhausted and I didn’t see any reason why she should continue.”
She finally succeeded on her third attempt to defeat Lake Okanagan, although she finished behind Pat Wicks, a physical education student from the University of British Columbia. Ms. Wicks was greeted by 10,000 spectators who lined the shoreline to cheer her finish in 29 hours, 36 minutes. Ms. Meraw eclipsed her own world endurance record by being in the water 32 hours, 12 minutes. A male swimming instructor from New York previously pulled out of the race, complaining the challenge was “just too tough.”
After retiring from competition, Ms. Meraw remained a tireless advocate of youth participation in sports, particularly swimming, especially by girls and women. Among her many projects was the founding of a local sports hall of fame for her neighbourhood in Maple Ridge, B.C. She was inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 1985 for her role in promoting her sport. At the age of 87, she published a memoir titled Marathon Swimmer.
She made little money as a pro swimmer, and even commercial endorsements of Bee Hive corn syrup and Canada Dry ginger ale were paid with product in lieu of cash.
The swimmer was more dogged than many knew. Choppy water and the odour of lard and grease with which marathon racers slathered their bodies often caused her to suffer from seasickness during her long, lonely swims.
Ms. Meraw died on March 7. She leaves a son and two grandchildren. She was predeceased by her husband, Joe Meraw, who died in 1982. She was also predeceased by a brother, a sister and a grandson.
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