On Sept 9, 1954, Marilyn Bell. a 16-year old Toronto schoolgirl, entered the annals of marathon swimming, and left an enduring mark on Canadian sporting history by becoming the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. On January 28 of this year, I had the good fortune to meet Marilyn and, since then, the privilege of helping her return to swimming after a 16-year hiatus.
Marilyn’s is among the most uplifting of all TI Stories. What better time to tell it than the 60th anniversary of her historic swim?
In January my friend Dr. Paul Lurie–at age 96, a Kaizen (constantly improving) TI swimmer–called to alert me that, one of his neighbors at Woodland Pond, a senior residence 10 minutes from my home in New Paltz NY, was a ‘swimming legend.’ I immediately googled Marilyn Bell (now DiLascio) and learned of her exploits. Paul said that Marilyn–now 76–shared the pool with him each morning. However, as Paul swam his customary 20 lengths, Marilyn was limited to ‘aqua exercise.’
Since age 60, a degenerative spinal condition had caused painful back spasms whenever she attempted front crawl. It pained Paul that a legendary swimmer could no longer do what had brought her such distinction, but he felt if anything could help her get her mojo back, TI could.
Reading about Marilyn on-line, I learned that after swimming Lake Ontario, in 1955 she became the youngest person to swim the English Channel, and in 1956 the first woman to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Port Angeles WA to Vancouver Island, British Columbia (9 hours in 47F water temperatures!)
Marilyn hung up her suit at age 18 but her fame endured. Babies, public parks, and a ferry were named after her. A quarter-century later, Canadians still considered her a sporting icon on a par with hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky.
At 19 Marilyn moved to New Jersey to marry Jim DiLascio, who she’d met when he was among her safety escorts as she swam the Atlantic City Marathon. Together they raised four children—all swimmers—in Willingboro NJ, where Marilyn taught elementary school and Joe worked in state government.
After Marilyn was widowed, she moved to Woodland Pond, to be near one of her daughters (as Paul had after retiring at 93 as an emeritus professor at Albany Medical College). They soon bonded over their shared love of swimming. Within days of Paul’s entreaty, I met them at the Woodland Ponds pool
When I asked Marilyn to try a length of freestyle, she displayed classic 1950s form –head high, hips locked, legs churning. I was fairly sure that form was causing her back spasms and that technique improvements would enable her to enjoy pain-free swimming. Here, I’ll turn the narrative over to Marilyn:
Paul called me on a Monday evening and said: “Would you be willing to meet with my friend Terry?” Well, how could I say no to Paul Lurie. He wasn’t only a dear friend; I was so inspired by how beautifully he swam and the enjoyment he got out of it.
But, to be honest, I really doubted that I could swim again after so many years. Then you arrived in the middle of a snowstorm at 6:45 the very next morning. I thanked you for coming in such awful weather and you answered, “It’s an honor to meet a swimming legend” and I thought “Oh goodness, now I really have to go through with this.”
When you showed me video of my stroke, I could recognize the way I’d been swimming was unhealthy for my back.
The first exercise—Superman—brought back something I hadn’t thought about in 70 years–how wonderful it felt when I first learned to float. I’d completely forgotten that sensation. Superman also taught me to align my head and spine. I immediately felt more comfortable.
But I struggled with the second drill–the Skate. Extending and streamlining each side of my body made perfect sense, but I was so used to the old focus on pulling and kicking that I felt like such a klutz.
I practiced every morning between your visits. I commented to Paul how hard it was to unlearn old habits. But the TI sequence of small and simple skills, plus your advice to focus on just one thing at a time, helped me make progress every day. That was exciting.
And Paul was an invaluable mentor. He has a good eye for TI technique, so he watched me closely and gave feedback. In addition, we filmed each other with my ipad and compared my form with his.
Two aspects of this experience were most rewarding. One was feeling such harmony with the water after years of discomfort,. And for the first time ever I was learning how swimming should feel. Even now, I get goose bumps recalling how sensual the water felt to my arm the first time I slipped it into the ‘Mail Slot.’
Best of all, swimming is now a joyful experience. I always felt elated after completing my long swims, but swimming for pure joy is such an unexpected gift and I understand why Paul was so anxious for me to share this.
My swimming has long been a source of inspiration for people–of persistence and determination. I’m excited and grateful that I might once again provide inspiration, but of a different kind–not about how far or fast you swim, but about learning something new at any age–as Paul did at 93!
Swimming the TI way seems like an anti-aging prescription—not only for physical health, but as a learning challenge to keep your mind and senses sharp and your outlook fresh. You can literally learn something new each day. I’ve learned so much, yet still feel like I’ve only begun. I really want to master the form completely.
I’ve always lived with a sense of gratitude, because I’ve had such a wonderful life, but this swimming rebirth has come so unexpectedly.
On August 18, Marilyn swam in open water for the first time in 27 years, synchronizing strokes with me for 400 meters in Lake Minnewaska. See how beautifully she now swims in this video.