Marilyn Korzekwa’s open water swimming career is long and impressive.

Not only was she the first to complete swims of Lake Ontario from both south-to-north and north-to-south, she was also the first Canadian to swim the English Channel, Manhattan Island, and the Catalina Channel; considered the Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming.

Having been born in Toronto, Marilyn Korzekwa was enraptured by the story of Marilyn Bell’s legendary Lake Ontario swim growing up. In fact, Marilyn Korzekwa was actually named after Marilyn Bell.

It comes as no surprise that her feats have gone on to rival those of her namesake.

 

Destined for the open waters

Marilyn has always loved swimming. Her uncle had a cottage in Muskoka, and she swam there until her twenties.

“When I went to the cottage and the water was cold, that never stopped me. It didn’t bother me if I got too cold. I figured out how to warm up. That’s where I got my love of cold water swimming, because I’d go in no matter what.”

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Korzekwa

As a child, Marilyn’s mother also took her to the Gus Ryder Pool to swim. Marilyn recalls, “I never saw anybody swimming in Lake Ontario when I was little. In the 1970s, people didn’t swim in the Great Lakes much because of all the pollution.”

However, after the Great Lakes were treated for their pollution issues and invasive sea lamprey populations, Marilyn found a new place to swim that had been there all along.

Marilyn started swimming competitively at age thirteen. By the time she was in high school, she and a group of girls had formed a girl’s swim team. Then, Marilyn swam on the University of Toronto swim team while attending medical school.

In the evenings, Marilyn trained at Hart House, alongside a girl named Elizabeth Plank who was training to swim across Lake Ontario. Marilyn noticed that she had the exact same speed and endurance as Elizabeth.

After a while, it dawned on Marilyn that if she had as much endurance as someone training to cross Lake Ontario, she could swim Lake Ontario too. That’s when she started dreaming about it. It wasn’t long until Elizabeth was coaching Marilyn for her first swim of the lake.

 

Swimming away from the noise

Marilyn has never been a fan of swimming in pools. Pools are too hot and too crowded. She’s constrained by lane ropes and schedule times. Plus, now that Marilyn is so acclimatized to cold water, she’s certain swimming in a pool would make her nauseous.

Swimming in the open water, on the other hand, gives Marilyn a feeling of freedom like no other.

Marilyn's Lake Superior success at Pancake Bay. Photo by Kaija Siirala

She plans her swims by looking at a map and saying to herself, “I could swim from here to there.” She explains that her swim routes are sort of like a trail to a hiker. Lately, Marilyn has been looking at a map of Ontario and trying to decide where to swim next. “My heart is in Lake Ontario,” she says.

Another thing Marilyn enjoys about open water swimming is being surrounded by natural beauty.

“My Catalina Channel swim was beautiful. The sun came up and warmed my back. I could see the finish. The water was crystal clear. I’ve never seen water with such a beautiful aqua colour.”

Marilyn has lots of love for the other lakes in her home province, too. She fondly remembers the spectacular sites of Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. The water there was so clear that even two and a half kilometers from shore, she could see the bottom.

“The Cook Strait had kind of a rugged beauty, with all those volcanic outcroppings. But Lake Superior was superior in every way!”

Flotilla on Lake Superior. Photo courtesy of Marilyn Korzekwa

 

The mental and physical challenges of open water swimming

The Cook Strait was Marilyn’s toughest swim, but the English Channel is a close second. Marilyn actually ended up winning the award for the most difficult swim of the year for her English Channel crossing, having battled 35 knot winds and turbulent waters.

Marilyn has endured 12-foot waves in Lake Nippissing, fields of jellyfish on the east coast, and spent countless hours in the dark traversing frigid waters.

Marilyn swimming the Cook Strait accompanied by Colleen Shields and Philip Rush. Photo courtesy of Marilyn Korzekwa

Marilyn has triumphed over mental challenges as well as physical challenges.

For Marilyn, the first hour is the worst. She still has her landlubber brain and she’s thinking too much. She often wonders what she’s gotten herself into. Thinking of spending the next 14 hours in the water is enough to make anyone apprehensive.

After the first hour, Marilyn stops worrying so much. If she’s lucky, the conditions are good and she can zone out. But if she’s cold or in pain or fighting waves, she’s brought back into her body every time they hit her, unable to leave her mind behind.

Marilyn swimming in high waves in the Santa Barbara Channel with Paula Jongerden paddling. Photo courtesy of Marilyn Korzekwa

 

Swimming with sharks and dolphins

Aside from the physical and mental challenges of open water swimming, Marilyn also has to be aware of the water’s inhabitants.

In 2018, Marilyn had an all-too-close encounter with a shark when she swam the Santa Barbara Channel. She was about halfway across the channel with her husband paddling beside her. All of a sudden, he waved at her to come closer and said “There’s been some wildlife spotted, stick close to me.”

Although Marilyn had a shark shield (a flexible electrode that dangles off the kayak), she thought to herself, “If there’s a shark charging at me, do I really want to count on an electric field to stop him 10 feet from me?”

The shark began swimming straight for the boat, and Marilyn and her husband agreed it was time to get out of the water.

“My crew had been seeing a shark circling and coming closer. When the shark was 50 feet from the boat, he made a beeline for me and my crew.”

After Marilyn was pulled out of the sea, she saw the shark circling the spot where she had been swimming.

As it turns out, there was some kind of waste treatment facility near shore that Marilyn and her crew weren’t aware of. Heavy sewage outfalls can attract bait fish, which then attract sharks. Marilyn had been swimming right through their feeding grounds.

When Marilyn successfully crossed the Santa Barbara Channel the following year, she was accompanied by about a hundred dolphins. They darted by her on all sides, never staying by her for too long, but they went by a few times.

Photo by David

(Perhaps this was the channel’s way of apologizing for the close call of the previous year.)

 

Giving back

Marilyn uses her swims to give back to her community. Most of her swims have been fundraisers, and although she often shies away from media attention, her swims have raised awareness for multiple causes.

From 2011 to 2014, Mairlyn swam for the Good Shepherd, a network of shelters in Hamilton for disabled people, battered women, homeless people, and people suffering from mental health issues.

From 2015 to 2018, she swam for Sashbear, a charity that works to help people with severe personality disorders as well as their families.

Marilyn training at a rugged beach in New Zealand, holding Sashbear, the mascot of the Sashbear charity. Photo courtesy of Marilyn Korzekwa

In 2020, Marilyn swam for the Nippissing Trackers, a group of volunteer ski instructors that teach kids with disabilities to ski.

In addition to her incredible swims and charitable work, Marilyn is the President of Solo Swims Ontario.

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