Monday, August 18, 2014

Fact #32: Doug Ford Sr. did not, as his family claims, swim Lake Ontario with Marilyn Bell

Editor's Note: There's a school of thought that says every family has their tall tales, and this isn't newsworthy. To an extent that's true - it's certainly no $85M LRT cancellation fee boondoggle. However, the swim story provides some important context on the Fords: 1. It shows how they will lie about anything, even when it doesn't matter; 2. It shows how they are happy to promote their fictionalized history in official government documents; and 3. It's yet another reminder that the whole concept of Fordian Exceptionalism that stretches from Doug Sr. all the way down to 'lil Mikey in Ward 2 is based on high grade, uncut BS.

Of course, there is perhaps a 1% chance that we've got this all wrong. If the Fords can provide evidence that the Marilyn Bell swim happened like they claim we'll print a full retraction. Until then, we can't comment on a swim that we have never seen or does not exist.


It's true. Much of the Ford Family myth comes from stories about their larger-than life father, who single-handedly founded Deco (he didn't), was a major player in provincial politics (he was a one-term backbencher) and who served as an honoured Rotarion (he got his award for donating $1,000, just like Doug Jr.). The impact of Doug Sr. on the Ford clan is profound. "My dad’s my political hero," Rob said in 2012, "my business hero—he’s my hero overall. End of story."

One of the anchors of the Doug Ford Sr. legend is that he was a champion swimmer who set out with Marilyn Bell the night she conquered Lake Ontario. As the nomination for renaming a park in his honour states:
"He was a championship swimmer and, at the age of 16, became the youngest person ever to attempt the annual CNE marathon swim across Lake Ontario."
Toronto Life expands the story:
A talented athlete, he played football for the East York Argonauts and attempted to swim Lake Ontario in the same crossing that turned Marilyn Bell into the nation’s darling, but it was a job as a lifeguard that changed his fortunes.
And in Crazy Town, Robyn Doolittle writes:
"Standing six feet tall, with his chiselled jaw, thick golden hair, and dashing smile, he looked like a movie star," Robyn Doolittle Robyn Doolittle writes in her book Crazy Town. He loved long distance swimming, and when 16-year-old Marilyn Bell attempted to cross Lake Ontario on Sept. 10, 1954, Ford attempted to swim by her side. "He didn't make it," Doolittle writes. "[He] kept training, and on the side worked as a lifeguard. It was at the local pool that he first caught sight of a beautiful, blond Diane Campbell [Rob, Doug, Randy, and Diane's mother.]" 
And Mayor Ford's official YouTube channel posted a video with similar text:
"As a youth, Mr. Ford was a championship swimmer and in 1954, at the age of 16, attempted the CNE marathon swim across Lake Ontario, alongside Marilyn Bell, who completed the distance."

There's only one problem with the story - it never happened. Here's why:

1. The Ford family claims Doug Sr. did his Lake Ontario swim when he was 16. Doug was born in February 1933, so he was 16 in the summer of 1949. Marilyn Bell did her swim in 1954.

There was a CNE marathon swim in 1949, won by that year's Lou Marsh Memorial Trophy recipient Cliff Lumsdon. It was not a race across Lake Ontario. As Lumsdon's citation states, 
"Forty-five of the best professional marathon swimmers in the world jumped into the unusually chilly waters of Lake Ontario to contest the World Marathon Swim Championship in a grueling fifteen mile race... A forty-sixth man sitting on the dock dipped his toes into the frigid waters and decided to let the others go without him!"
Doug Ford was not a professional marathon swimmer, so it's unlikely (but possible) that he was one of the participants in 1949. Only three swimmers finished that race, so the story does line up a little bit.

Ford certainly couldn't have raced against Bell in 1949 because she was only 11 and just starting to train. Perhaps the legend confuses Doug Ford's age with Marilyn's, who was 16 in 1954.

2. Marilyn Bell was racing against two other women. "Florence Chadwick and Winnie Roach Leuszler, a Toronto swimming star who had also joined the challenge, were forced to quit the race before 6:00 a.m. on September 9. Marilyn Bell continued forward with determination, under the guidance of her coach, Gus Ryder, despite the cold water, the presence of lamprey eels and the fatigue that almost overwhelmed her at times." 

3. Marilyn Bell started the race alone, without even her coach or safety boat. A 2014 retelling by Bell herself shows that she was rushed into the water, in darkness, completely alone. It was only later and part way into the race that she met up with her coach. As Bell recalls: 
"They delayed two days. On Sept. 8, the weather was still bad, but it was breaking. Chadwick entered the water at the Coast Guard station at about 11 p.m., but the news the race had started wasn’t immediately transferred to Bell or Roach.
“We had maybe an hour to prepare. Unfortunately, my dad and my coach went for a walk,” she explained. “We were all living on this little boat. It was very tense — really close quarters. It was a beautiful yacht, but it wasn’t designed to have hordes of people.”
After a mad dash to get her dad and coach to the yacht, they took a risk to get the 16-year-old swimmer on the lake sooner. They hitched a ride with a stranger, took her by car to the Coast Guard station, telling her to dive in the river, swim out into the lake — until the escort boat could meet her.
“It was 11 o’clock at night. No moon. I mean, it was a stormy night. And there were all kind of floodlights at the Coast Guard station. So Florence came down. She dove in. She took off,” Bell Di Lascio said. “So I was standing there looking out at the dark. I’d never swum at night before. I was petrified of night swimming.”
Her coach convinced her that the dark wouldn’t matter once she got swimming.
“The last thing he said to me before they transported me to the start was, ‘When you dive in, just swim out of the river … Just swim straight out and we’ll find you. I’ll find you.’ Which, in retrospect, was like this crazy, crazy thing. Why, number one, was he so sure that he would find me? And why did I believe him?
“It was the coach and the swimmer. I had so much faith and trust in him.”
With Chadwick, the favorite, gone, those big floodlights turned off. Surrounded by black on all sides, she remembers crying as she swam — unsure if she’d find her coach or her escort crew.
“I couldn’t tell where the water ended and the sky started,” she said. “It seemed endless.”
After a while, she saw dim lights in the distance. She kept going. “Finally, I heard Gus’s voice. He was calling me. ‘Marilyn. Marilyn.’ He had a big powered flashlight. So I swam to the light and we were on our way.”
It's possible that Doug joined her as an escort at the end of the swim, but the only person Marilyn mentions who did that was her friend Joan Cooke. Cooke and Bell both ended up in the same ambulance at the end, so it's not clear that anyone else was there. 

3. Marilyn Bell never mentions Doug Ford, nor is he included in any historical account. In Marilyn's three-page retelling of the story she makes no mention of any swimmers other than Chadwick and Roach. None of the 1954 newspaper accounts mention Doug Ford (in fact, there is no mention of Doug Ford anywhere in the Globe & Mail or Toronto Star prior to his entering provincial politics in 1995). To date there is no photographic evidence or any document that lists Doug Sr.'s participation.

4. Is any of this true? Doug Ford Sr. was a swimmer, and he did train under the same coach (Gus Ryder) at the same time as Marilyn. They both belonged to the Lakeshore Swimming Club. The two undoubtedly knew each other, and may well have participated in distance swims together.

Doug Ford may have entered the 1949 CNE swim marathon, but it was only a 15-mile circuit. Ford may have attempted a lake swim in 1954, but it's hard to see how he could have done it with no budget (Marilyn needed newspaper sponsorship), without being noticed by any of the dozens of reporters covering the race and without the support of his coach (who was busy helping Marilyn).

He may have been part of Marilyn's support team, but there is no mention of him in any account. The only documented support team members were Joan Cooke, George Bryant, Gus Ryder and Jack Russell. The four are shown below in Marilyn's escort boat (not pictured: Doug Ford):

Why should I care?

This is far from the biggest lie that Rob and Doug Ford have told, but it's a very telling one. The family took a credible story (dad was a competitive swimmer) and then layered on fabrication after fabrication until you end up with a heroic legend (dad participated in the most famous marathon swim race in history!). Either Doug Sr. is some sort of Canadian Forrest Gump, or the Ford family keeps enough revisionist historians on retainer to make North Korea proud.

Rob and Doug should know that the story never happened. Family matriarch Diane Ford must have certainly known better, especially since she met her husband through swimming. None of them appear to have spent much time correcting or explaining the various versions of the story. And that's why it's relevant - if the Ford boys are willing to make up and/or be complicit in the fictionalization of their childhood hero and political inspiration, why should we trust him to tell the truth about anything else?

How do I know you're not lying?

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