Katie Daubs, Toronto Star Aug 16 2012
Every morning, Marilyn Bell Di Lascio exercises in the deep end of the indoor swimming pool. The warm water ripples as a 96-year-old man swims laps.
Di Lascio moved into the retirement community in New York State a few months ago, and her nonagenarian pool partner recently discovered she was a retired marathon swimmer. He doesn’t know the whole story, mind you, how Di Lascio was the first to cross Lake Ontario, how she swam through the night, how she became an international sensation.
“I never really was very specific,” the 74-year-old says. “Somebody knew, somebody had found out — you know, people Google.”
Di Lascio has a degenerative back condition which makes swimming painful, but she loves the water.
“That’s one of the beauties of swimming — you can do it, some form of it, for as long as you wish,” she says. “He’ll say to me, ‘So will you watch my stroke, keep an eye on my feet, tell me what my feet are doing.’”
“The famous American got the backing and endorsing of the CNE, and the unknown Canadian did it ... the race turned out the way nobody thought it would,” said CNE General Manager David Bednar.
The CNE invited Di Lascio and her husband back for the 50th anniversary of the swim in 2004.
Bednar, a few years into his new job at the time, was “extremely sensitive” to the history that the CNE had not treated Marilyn well initially.
“I gingerly raised the topic and she said, ‘It’s such old history you shouldn’t even bring that up,’” he said.
It is a tale she has recounted often, and graciously, in the decades that have taken her away from marathon swimming and into the business of starting a family, raising four children and becoming a grandmother to five.
Back in 1954, Bell had trained like any marathon swimmer of the day: swimming and sprinting in the water. There was no land training, no cross sport training.
“That first swim could probably be compared to when the covered wagons were going across the prairies. It was a totally different time, a different world,” she says, laughing.
Her coach, Gus Ryder, had a flashlight, a compass and a long stick to pass food to Bell. She ate baby cereal and corn syrup. Ryder used a chalk board to give her messages.
It had been days since she had a full night’s sleep. She swam in the wrong direction for a while. It felt like a fog.
“When you trained as much as I had trained, the swimming itself becomes automatic, your body just knows what its doing, but of course it helps to pay attention to the direction you were doing it in,” she says.
After almost 21 hours and 52 kilometres, she reached Toronto. She didn’t realize she completed the swim until she was in the ambulance afterward. She has no recollection of the huge crowd gathered on the shore. The next night, she was presented with $10,000 and a parade at the CNE bandstand.
“I’ve had several conversations with oldtimers here and a thorough conversation with the archivist. It was unique in the history of the Ex, when we talk about accomplishments and sense of notoriety, it stands head and shoulders above anything we can think of,” Bednar says, noting other daredevil rope walkers and Evil Knievel.
At the time, the swim was a controversial one. Several of the sporting voices, the powers that be of that era, doubted it could ever be done by a human, certainly not a woman, Di Lascio remembers.
“My husband always told me this from early early on — that swim really changed the way most people or many people looked at what women were capable of. I never really thought about it until I got much older....
“When I hear about young women, or older women going back and trying it a second or third time, who have already accomplished the feat, I’m in awe of that, I’m thankful I had a little part in perhaps getting the ball rolling.”
This summer, seven swims across Lake Ontario have been scheduled, with potential records for both the youngest and oldest women to make the crossing. Annaleise Carr, 14, plans to make the swim on Friday. Colleen Shields, 60, had to postpone her Aug. 11 swim until September because of bad weather.
“I think after all these years, it’s wonderful to know that there are still so many swimmers that see Lake Ontario or any other body of water as a challenge,” Di Lascio says.
Di Lascio swam the Straits of Juan de Fuca and the English Channel before she retired from marathon swimming with a triple crown of sorts in 1956. She married Joe Di Lascio, a lifeguard she met while training in Atlantic City.
“I felt like I was going to something better, more important to me, which was him, and boy did I ever make a good choice,” she says.
She became a teacher and raised four children in New Jersey. Di Lascio’s husband — her biggest fan in a crowded group — died of cancer five years ago, a few days shy of the couple’s 50th anniversary.
“Sometimes I look in mirror and say, ‘Who is this woman who lives in this body? I’ve grown in so many ways. They say out of a great loss a lot of good can happen, that is exactly what has happened to me. I feel very blessed, I have such a good life without any regrets,” she said.
A few months ago, Di Lascio moved into an apartment near one of her children in New York state. She still receives letters, emails and phone calls from children wanting to do a school project on her swim. Some send her a long list of questions for her to answer.
“Because I was a teacher for many years and I don’t believe in doing kids’ homework, I will contact them, sometimes by phone or by email, and I will give them links, I’ll make suggestions — if you wish to get the correct information on this particular part of the subject try this website, let me know how you do, if you run into trouble, email me back,” she says.
The connection she has with Toronto — a city that bears her name on a ferry, park and commemorative plaque, is a special one. Di Lascio acknowledges that for a time in the 1950s, she became “everyone’s daughter.”
After all these years, she doesn’t expect anyone to recognize her, even though many still do. When she is introduced at various functions, she is always amused by a common reaction in the audience.
“It will be usually be a gentleman turning to his wife and saying, ‘boy she got old.’ Because I was 16 — and my picture was used so frequently. There is a neat little thing about that, for people I’ve never met, it’s like I’ve never aged, it’s like how I feel about Shirley Temple,” she said.
“I understand why that happens. It must be a heck of a shock.”