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North York's Winnie Roach Leuszler, the first Canadian to swim the English Channel. - Toronto Star file photo
North York's Winnie Roach Leuszler, the first Canadian to swim the English Channel. - Toronto Star file photo

North York Woman First Canadian to Swim English Channel

‘Winnie went with only $36,’ writes Susan Goldenberg

Aug. 16 will mark the 68th anniversary of North Yorker Winnifred “Winnie” Roach Leuszler, 25, making history as the first Canadian to swim the English Channel.

The London, England Daily Mail invited the world’s top 20 swimmers from 10 countries to compete, swimming from France to England. The Daily Mail sent a one-way plane ticket. Winnie went with only $36.

Swimming the front crawl at 40 strokes per minute in shivery 9 C and battling high waves, Winnie made the crossing to the foot of the White Cliffs of Dover in 13 hours and 25 minutes, coming in seventh despite losing her goggles and being stung in an eye by a jellyfish. She swum upwards of 40 miles over a course which is about 21 miles.

“I feel marvellous. Let’s go dancing. Tomorrow I’ll play a basketball game,” she jubilantly declared, then collapsed, her knees drawn up in pain.

“Darling, you’re the greatest girl in the world,” her proud mother said.

“No, I’m not,” Winnie replied. “I am just an ordinary swimmer that got tangled up 200 yards from the English coast and it seems the wind and waves were trying to wash me all the way back to France.”

She got $1,400 in prize money, largely used for her return flight.

She received a ticker tape parade along Bay Street, packed with cheering crowds, then was presented with an inscribed silver tea set.

“For once, the city and suburban North York dispensed with boundary troubles to unite for a day and extend greetings to Winnie,” The Globe and Mail commented.

However, Winnie became forgotten in the wake of 16-year-old Marilyn Bell winning a 1954 contest to swim across Lake Ontario, a distance of 50 kilometres, considerably more than the English Channel. Winnie withdrew at the three-quarter mark because of cramps.

In 1957, Winnie achieved another sport first, becoming Canada’s first female baseball umpire.

She died in 2004.

“She never, ever received the public acclaim that was warranted,” Marilyn Bell said. “I’ve long felt it was sad that she didn’t.”

Written by Susan Goldenberg.

Originally published on July 23, 2019, on toronto.com.