Now and Then: Alex Duff, Grandfather of Synchronized Swimming
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Now and Then: Alex Duff, Grandfather of Synchronized Swimming

Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.

Alex Duff 1928 Olympic

Some of the Olympics team in 1928, including Alex Duff, who coached some of the competitors. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 14105.

March in Toronto has come in like a lion, as the saying goes, and sunny summer days at the pool might seem far off. But this week, we’re taking a trip back to the 1920s and ’30s, and jumping in the pool with the Toronto Dolphinets and their ambitious coach, who helped develop synchronized swimming.

Get your swim caps ready.

In the 1920s, swim coach Alex Duff started training women in swimming and diving, founding the Dolphinets Swim Club in 1926. As the plaque dedicated to Duff at the outdoor Christie Pits pool named for him notes, he trained Canadian swim champions and Olympic and British Empire Games competitors. Such began his foray into the world of swimming.

Duff was renowned for coaching strong female athletes. One of his most famous students was Marilyn Bell, who became a household name after becoming the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. Bell started as a short-distance sprint swimmer with the Dolphinets and became a long-distance swimmer when she started training under coach Gus Ryder (who has a pool and health club named after him) at the Lakeshore Swim Club.

Marilyn Bell English Channel

Marilyn Bell with her coach Gus Ryder, likely after her English Channel swim in 1955. Toronto Archive. Fonds 1244, Item 2120

According to Margaret Ann Hall’s book The Girl and The Game: A History of Women’s Sport in Canada, at the first British Empire Games in Hamilton, in 1930, two teenage swimmers from the Dolphinet Club, 16-year-old Irene Pirie and 13-year-old Marjorie Linton, placed in all of their races.

Duff also travelled to London, England, in 1934 as the coach for the diving and swimming team at the British Empire Games, and to Berlin in 1936 as the assistant coach at the Olympic Games. He wasn’t able to attend the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, although some of his students were there. As the Toronto Daily Star reported, he was “wandering around town to-day [sic] bemoaning the fact that he neither got the chance to go to the Olympic games at the expense of the Olympic fund and that he cannot afford to pay his own way…he claims that four of the Canadian swimmers and divers who made the team are his pupils.” Canada won nine medals at the Berlin Olympics, the games Duff did attend, but none for swimming.

But Duff’s most notable accomplishment was his creation of ornamental swimming, which later developed into synchronized swimming.

In the ’20s and ’30s, ornamental swimming was, as the name suggests, mostly for show, famously featured in Hollywood films known as “aqua musicals.”

The first competition for synchronized swimming in Canada was held in 1924 in Montreal, but it didn’t become an Olympic sport until the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Since then, Canada has won eight medals in synchro events.

Women 1929 CNE Swim

Women line up for the three mile swim race at the CNE in 1929. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 17880

Aside from swim, Duff was also a skiing and photography enthusiast. He was a member of the Toronto Ski Club and the Toronto Camera Club.

The Toronto Dolphinets Club put up the plaque in his honour on the memorial pool building named for him after he died suddenly in 1952.

The plaque commemorating Duff sits at Christie Pits, which used to be a popular swimming hole. The pits were formed thanks to gravel mining and a natural ravine that used to lead down to Garrison Creek, a now-buried river.

Garrison Creek sewer

The Garrison Creek sewer under construction in the 1890s. Fonds 200, Series 376, File 1, Item 15.

Duff leaves behind a rich legacy. It spans beyond the robust competitive women’s swim teams in Canada and the recognition of synchronized swimming as a professional competitive sport. Every beautiful, sunny day spent at the Christie Pits pool, in fact, is touched by Duff’s hard work and accomplishments.


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