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Winnie Roach Leuszler
Winnie Roach Leuszler, 1954, in the St. Thomas Times-Journal, courtesy Elgin County Archives

Willowdale Woman First Canadian to Swim English Channel

The recent brave attempt by five women to swim Lake Ontario length-wise by relay, brings back memories of a Willowdale woman, Winnifred “Winnie” Roach Leuszler, who was the first Canadian to swim the English Channel, doing so August 16, 1951.

The Daily Mail of London, England, had invited the top 20 swimmers from around the world to compete in a cross-channel swim from France to England. The conditions were daunting – the temperature was only 9ºC and the waves were high. The 25 year old Winnie made the crossing in 13 hours and 25 minutes.

She was instantly world famous and a heroine to Canadians.

The Globe and Mail wrote on August 30, 1951, “The moment she arrived in Toronto yesterday she was swept along in a tide of greetings, ticker tape and cheers, everywhere whe went. Winnie had come home.”

“The modest Willowdale housewife, mother of three children, stepped out of Union Station in the morning to be the centre of attraction at two civic welcomes.” The Globe went on to say Winnie helped unite the city albeit short-term, “For once, the city and suburban North York dispensed with boundary troubles to unite for a day and extend greetings to Winnie.”

The tribute to Winnie included a ticker tape parade. She went slowly up Bay Street in a 12-car motorcade as ticker tape tumbled from business offices and cheers resounded from the crowds along the way.

On the steps of city hall Mayor Hiram McCallum presented her with an inscribed silver tea set. Winnie told him she would rather swim the Channel than make a speech, but she said a few words of thanks. After the city reception, the entourage moved on to North York. Led by the band of the Queen’s Own Rifles, Winnie drove in a parade from Finch Avenue to the Willowdale Memorial Community Hall.

That evening residents on her parents’ street held a street dance in her honour. There was a juke box providing music for the dancing and firecrackers.

In 1957, Willie achieved a first in another sport, baseball, becoming Canada’s first female baseball umpire.

Winnie Roach Leuszler died in 2004.

Researched and written by Susan Goldenberg, Director, North York Historical Society

Originally published in the August 2014 North York Historical Society Newsletter