American Elizabeth Fry swims across Lake Ontario, following Marilyn Bell’s path

A long exposure shot of the Toronto Skyline off of Lake Ontario. File / Getty Images

TORONTO – Before wading into the water at Queen’s Royal Park in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Elizabeth Fry looked over the list of names on a plaque dedicated to all the men and women who had completed a solo swim across Lake Ontario. At the top of the list is Marilyn Bell, her friend and hero.

Fry completed the 51.7-kilometre swim on Monday, setting foot at Marilyn Bell Park in the west end of Toronto with an unofficial time of 15 hours 46 minutes. Bell, who was the first person to ever make the impressive trip across the Great Lake as a 16 year old in 1954, had monitored Fry’s progress online and the two spoke on the phone shortly after Fry reached land.

“They’re legends, all of them,” said the 58-year-old Fry in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. “I knew that this was going to be an incredibly difficult swim when I went in and it certainly lived up to that. It’s fun and challenging and cold and bumpy and all those things.”

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Fry will have her time ratified by Solo Swim Ontario, the official record-keeping organization for the course. They will compare three different stopwatches to confirm her final time. Toronto’s Cindy Nicholas set the women’s record of 15:10 in 1974. American John Kinsella holds the men’s record at 13:49, set in 1978.

It was Bell who had suggested in November that Fry take on the challenging open-water swim. The two had met when Fry was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame’ in 2014. When Bell heard that Fry — who had already crossed the English Channel, amongst other swimming accomplishments — was looking for a new challenge, she suggested that the younger swim follow in her wake and try Lake Ontario.

Fry chose the park named after Bell just west of Exhibition Place to honour her hero.

“That was my goal,” said Fry. “With all the support and advice I got from Marilyn and the entire Solo Swim Ontario group, that was my goal to finish right at the ladder at Marilyn Bell Park.”

Lifeguards support Marilyn Bell (arrow points to her head) as she rests exhausted beside the seawall after completing her historic swim across Lake Ontario on September 8, 1954. John Boyd / CP Images

Fry entered the water shortly after midnight and faced average water temperatures of 15.5 degrees Celsius. A boat with her coaches followed alongside her or ahead of her, monitoring her body temperature and heart rate with sensors. Periodically a water bottle with performance gel or water was thrown to her, with a rope tied to it to haul it back in to the boat. To break up the monotony, cookies would be dropped to Fry as she trailed behind the boat that she would try and scoop into her mouth.

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“I actually completely space out,” said Fry about being deprived of most of her senses while swimming. “My only sense of feeling comes in the form of cookies. At some point I need something crunchy because you’re basically on fluids the whole time. I really just zone out and enjoy my environment.”

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Fry builds up to her marathon outdoor swims by training up in a pool and then graduating to Long Island Sound near her home in Westport, Conn. Getting an official time in outdoor swims like Lake Ontario requires competitors have very simple equipment: a Speedo swimsuit, goggles and a single silicone cap. Vaseline is only applied to avoid chafing, not for warmth.

“You have to spend months and months or even years really get used to it,” said Fry. “Not just getting the yardage and getting the muscle memory but getting acclimated to the cold and adverse conditions.”

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