The world’s top marathon swimmers compete at the 1927 CNE.
In the early hours of January 16, 1927, an exhausted 17-year-old Toronto swimmer named George Young reached a beach on mainland California, having spent 15 hours and 46 minutes in the Pacific Ocean, during which he covered a distance of more than 20 miles. Young was the winner of—and indeed, the only contestant to finish—the Wrigley Ocean Marathon, a swimming race organized by William Wrigley Jr. (better known to history as the owner of the Chicago Cubs and as the founder of the chewing gum company which still bears his name). The race had been a challenging one in very cold water; all of the other contenders had succumbed to the cold, fatigue, or cramps. Young’s victory earned him not just the $25,000 prize awarded by Wrigley, but overnight celebrity status across the continent.
“For a brief time,” writes Jon Wertheim in a 2017 Sports Illustrated piece, “George Young was as prominent in the [United States] as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange.” Vivid accounts of Young’s California triumph ran in all the Toronto dailies and dominated the headlines over the following weeks. Journalists produced stories about Young’s childhood, his home life on Lippincott Street with his widowed mother, and his training by swimming in the Don River and at Toronto’s West End YMCA. While Young recovered from his exhausting victory, Torontonians read about how Young had once narrowly escaped a fire in Muskoka, how he and a friend had motorcycled to California to participate in the Wrigley marathon, and how he had now been approached by a movie studio that wanted to turn him into a film star. When he finally returned to Toronto a full month later, following numerous public appearances in the United States, the teenage swimmer, now nicknamed “the Catalina Kid,” was given an enormous public reception at City Hall.
Wrigley was, by all accounts, delighted by the public interest generated by the Santa Catalina marathon and by Young’s resulting celebrity. In March, the Toronto Star reported that Wrigley representatives were in town to confer with executives of the Canadian National Exhibition about the possibility of staging a second swimming marathon in Lake Ontario.
An agreement was reached in April: The event would be held on August 31 during the CNE with $50,000 in prize money to be distributed amongst the top finishers—half of the money coming from Wrigley, and the other half from the CNE. “Mr. Wrigley has been in receipt of offers to stage the race from all over the globe,” Elwood Hughes, sports director of the CNE, told the Star, “but he finally declared himself in favour of Toronto as the logical place for the contest…His interest in the race is purely sporting. He is interested in George Young’s future and hopes by this race to establish him as the undisputed long distance champion of the world.”
By summer, notices began appearing in Toronto newspapers, promoting the race as the “$50,000 Second Wrigley Swim Marathon for the Championship of the World.”
“This is the greatest single sports event ever launched in any country and the eyes of the world will be turned toward Toronto on this day,” announced one advertisement in the Globe.
Interest in long-distance swims had grown over the previous few years, and there was no shortage of prospective entrants with impressive accomplishments. While some newspaper articles early in the summer indicated that as many as 400 swimmers had officially entered the Toronto marathon, the reported number of entrants dropped in the days before the race as some participants changed their minds or failed to pass preliminary physical examinations. By most newspaper accounts, the total number of swimmers on race day was 174.
Aside from hometown favourite George Young, other notable entrants included France’s Georges Michel and Germany’s Ernst Vierkoetter, both of whom had recently completed successful crossings of the English Channel. Charles Zimmy, a legless swimmer from the United States, also drew attention in the press; Zimmy would later grab more headlines when he performed a solo relay swim of the Hudson River from Albany to New York City, which he accomplished while smoking a cigar for much of his journey. The most famous contestant anticipated, other than Young, was New York’s Gertrude Ederle, who had achieved international fame the year before when she became the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel, doing so in what was then record time. Both men and women were free to enter the Second Wrigley Marathon, and the organizers set aside an additional $5,000 for the top female finisher regardless of where she finished in the overall race.
To ensure that no swimmer received an unfair advantage, the race featured several regulations. Each entrant was required to have an accompanying rowboat, in which the swimmer’s coach or assistant could monitor their swimmer’s progress and, when necessary, supply them with food or hot liquids. (If subsequent advertisements are to believed, many of the swimmers preferred Ovaltine.) These boats were required to remain 15 feet away from their swimmers to ensure that the swimmers received no illicit help. Each boat also contained an official race observer who monitored their designated swimmer and made sure that the regulations were obeyed. The boats were also equipped with flags; a boat flying a white flag would mean that a contestant had retired or had been disqualified, whereas a red flag was a signal for a powerboat to come to deliver medical assistance.
“Bathing suits in those days were often made of wool, a real drag in the water, and most swimmers coated themselves with axle grease to protect them from the cold,” writes M. Ann Hall in The Girl and the Game: A History of Women’s Sport in Canada. Many swimmers, including both men and women, preferred to swim in the nude, while others, coated in grease, might accidentally lose their swimming attire along the way. (Indeed, George Young had discarded his bathing suit during his Catalina swim, reportedly after getting tangled in kelp, and had finished his famous race naked.)
When asked by prospective swimmers about nude swimming prior to the Second Wrigley Marathon, the CNE’s Elwood Hughes explained in the Star that “We are not a peculiar people in Canada, but we have certain ideas which must be respected…You must wear some sort of bathing suit or covering over your grease when you come to the mark and keep it over you until you enter the water. After that, what happens to your bathing suit is your business.” Additional boats were retained for the express purpose of collecting bathing suits after the race had begun. The Star predicted that nearly all participants were expected to discard their “chafing, hampering suits soon after the start, and take a chance on finding some sort of covering to protect their modesty when they come home in the winner’s berth and the movie and still cameras are clicking out their paean of welcome.”
At seven in the morning, 90 minutes before the official start of the race, swimmers, coaches, and officials began arriving on the lakeshore to make their final preparations for the marathon. As coaches and staff prepared the boats, the swimmers performed stretches and began applying their grease. “First to display this new morning habit was a young miss clothed in an abbreviated silk swimming suit and a layer of yellow ooze,” wrote the Globe. “She stepped from the marquee into a ring of movie men, who cranked and gaped, then cranked again. Then appeared a young giant, glistening in coal-black oil…It seemed that grease was everywhere—yellow grease, green grease, white and black.”
The swimmers dove into the water from special barges, which were arranged perpendicular the shore. The course was roughly triangular in design. Swimmers started just south of the Princes’ Gates (which were new to the grounds, having been officially dedicated just one day earlier), swam west for one mile along the shore, then headed into the lake for about three miles, at which point they turned at a buoy to return to the starting point. One lap was estimated to be about seven miles, and three such laps, for a total of 21 miles (roughly 33 3/4 km), constituted the full race. A key reason for this particular route, noted in several newspapers, was that it would give crowds along the shore an excellent view of the race and make it easy for them to monitor the swimmers’ progress. No seats or bleachers were provided; spectators were expected to sit or stand on the shore. Nevertheless, the Star estimated that a crowd of about 100,000 saw the race’s 8:30 a.m. start, with others coming and going as the marathon progressed.
For Torontonians unable to attend in person (August 31 was a Wednesday and thus a workday), the race was broadcast, apparently in its entirety, over the radio by Foster Hewitt. According to the Toronto Star, “the promptest and most detailed story of [the] marathon swim was that broadcast from the steamer Marassa by CFCA, the Star‘s radio station, and other Toronto stations.” The Toronto Telegram, meanwhile, set up a giant diagram of the marathon route in the ground-floor window of their building “which presented in graphic form the progress being made by the swimmers at the CNE.” The Star also noted that hundreds of visitors went to City Hall and took the elevator to the top of the tower “for the express purpose of seeing the marathon swimming race,” as the tower then offered an unobstructed view of the waterfront, with the individual swimmers just being visible with the aid of binoculars.
The initial plan called for the swimmers to connect with their affiliated boats at the end of their first mile, so that they could check in with their attendants. But, as CNE sports historian Bill Leveridge wrote in his 1978 account of Toronto’s first marathon swim, “this [caused] endless confusion…Many of the swimmers arrived simultaneously at this point, and it was almost impossible for the men in the boats to locate their respective charges.” Both George Young and Ernst Vierkoetter, apparently owing to confusion amongst their coaches, somehow managed to turn away from the shore at the wrong place and were forced to retrace their strokes so as to remain on the official course.
Many swimmers dropped out early. Accounts differ as to the lake’s temperature on the day, but it seems that it was likely somewhere around 57 degrees Fahrenheit (about 14 degrees Celsius), which proved unendurably cold for many of the competitors. Others soon appreciated that the distance was more than they could handle or developed debilitating cramps. The Telegram noted that several competitors were forced to drop out of the race after helping to rescue fellow swimmers. In one such instance, Lawrence Smith assisted another swimmer who “had hit his head against the seawall while swimming on his back. Losing his sense of direction, he had struck the cement, and was sinking when reached by Smith…Smith himself had to receive medical attention as he was struck in the face by the boat which picked him up.”
Also, it seems that the lake was full of eels.
“When Eddie Keating, public school swimming instructor of New York City, was taken out of the water and while being attended to in his boat, a one-foot eel was removed from one of his thighs,” wrote the Globe. “Outfitted with a cup-shaped head, and clinging tentacles like needle points in the inside of the cup, it was an aggravating water demon to dislodge.” “At the eight-mile mark,” wrote the Telegram, describing another episode, Ernst Vierkoetter “stopped and seemed to go under, and his trainer reached for some food, thinking he needed it. A second later, he yanked a lamprey eel off his body and threw it about 20 feet away and took one biscuit and a small drink as ordered by his German trainer.”
By most accounts, hometown favourite George Young held the lead at the second turn of the course’s triangle, with Ernst Vierkoetter close behind. “Shortly after they rounded the outside mark,” wrote the Star‘s Lou Marsh, four miles from the start, “Vierkoetter…who had been steadily gaining on him, hooked up with him and, in a duel which lasted over a mile, swam Young into complete exhaustion.” Young dropped back and, a few minutes later, before he had yet spent four hours in the water, removed himself from the race to the disappointment of many Toronto fans. “George Young collapses; Vierkoetter Leads” ran the headline on the front page of the Star‘s evening edition.
“Young’s collapse was most complete,” continued Marsh. “He was so badly exhausted that he could not help himself into the boat, but had to be dragged bodily over the side.” According to the Globe, he “was in a condition bordering on coma, but showed improvement upon arrival at his training camp in Oakville” News of Young’s retirement was delivered to the remaining competitors. As of 12:30 p.m., the Star reported that there were still 101 of the 174 starters in the race. Ernst Vierkoetter now remained alone in first with a lead of three-quarters of a mile, having completed his first of the three circuits in a little over four hours. Americans Byron “The Flying Fish” Summers and Fred Keating were second and third, and another Toronto swimmer, Mendel Burditt, was fourth. Ethel Hertle, a swimmer from the Bronx, was sixth.
As the race continued into the afternoon, Vierkoetter stretched his lead, and more and more swimmers dropped out. Mendel Burditt made it up to third place, but had to quit around 4:15 p.m. when beset by cramps. Ethel Hertle chose to exit the water while occupying fourth place, telling the Globe that, upon finishing her second lap, “it was simply the thought of seven more miles in the cold water” which prompted her to retire.
Finally, at 8:14 p.m., after nearly 12 continuous hours in the lake, and just as the sun was beginning to set, the crowd’s cheers swelled as Ernst Vierkoetter approached the finish line. According to the Globe, “twenty yards away, the German treaded water, and waved both arms in answer to the acclaim—waved, not once, but for many moments.” He showed remarkably few signs of fatigue, and was able to walk onto the gangplank under his own power, to the thunderous roar of the spectators. The Globe estimated the crowd on the beach as close to 250,000, proclaiming it to be “the biggest crowd in the city’s history—with the possible exception of the Armistice celebration…A mile long, and scores deep, it lined the whole length of one side of the triangular course…It spread up over the slopes of land from the waterfront and crawled over the top of the automobiles.” Police, both on horseback and on foot, worked to control the crowd, and loudspeaker announcements directed people not to push.
When Vierkoetter emerged from the water, he was at least five miles ahead of the closest remaining challenger, Georges Michel, who had just made the first turn on his final lap. Michel and those remaining in the lake would have to continue in the dark, as race organizers directed searchlights on to the lake so that the remaining spectators could continue to follow their progress. Michel managed to finish in second place at 12:44 a.m., by which point nearly all the remaining swimmers had dropped out. The only other competitor to finish the course was a Swedish-American named William Erickson, who finally emerged from the lake at 3:31 a.m., a full 19 hours after the race had begun.
While Toronto sportswriters were awed by Vierkoetter’s performance, many were also moved, if not horrified, by the condition of some who had dropped out. “To a layman, that Marathon Swim was at one and the same time the most beautiful and the most cruel athletic event he ever witnessed,” wrote the Globe‘s E. George Smith, in a column bearing the headline “Grand and Terrible!” “Out there, in the open lake, a poor doubled-up creature was hauled up, stiff and motionless, except for the pitiful shivering of his body, and laid, bent up like a jack-knife, in the bottom of the boat. Another, a woman, was rowed off the course in apparent stupor…There were scores like that.” Some questioned whether such an event should ever be staged in Toronto ever again.
Over the next few days, the newspapers provided Torontonians with more background on their new hero, 26-year-old Ernst Vierkoetter. A native of Cologne, Vierkoetter had learned to swim in the Rhine River. A baker by trade, he was fluent in several languages and was reportedly a music lover and talented pianist; Robert Dibble, the official marathon observer assigned to Vierkoetter’s boat during the race, told the Telegram that one of the attendants had kept Vierkoetter’s spirits up during the race by playing the accordion. Vierkoetter had come to the United States several months earlier and had participated in several swimming races. He had evidently been training in Toronto for the past month. Indeed, he was one of a few swimmers who had practised swimming in Lake Ontario in the days leading up to the race so as to get used to the local temperatures and currents (and eels), and during this time had even received some coaching from Jimmy Walker, a local Toronto coach already known for his association with George Young. And, perhaps most interestingly, the Telegram noted, Vierkoetter had accomplished his victory “under the handicap of being blind in the right eye, which, when he was six years of age, was pierced by a hatpin in the hand of his sister.”
Friday, September 2, saw the distribution of the prize money at the CNE. Ernst Vierkoetter received a cheque for $30,000 as the clear winner, with Michel and Erickson earning $7,500 and $2,500, respectively, for their efforts. $5,000 had been promised to the top female finisher regardless of where she finished, but as no woman had completed the course, some of the remaining prize money was adjusted. Lottie Moore Schoemmell earned $3,500 for being the woman covering the greatest distance, while Ethel Hertle, Martha Stager, and Toronto’s own Edith Hedin each also received cheques for lesser amounts.
Although some initially speculated that this would be the only swimming marathon ever staged at the CNE, the event’s wild popularity seems to have made a 1928 marathon inevitable. Wrigley maintained its sponsorship, and the 1928 race was billed as the “3rd Wrigley Marathon for the Championship of the World.” For 1928, the organizers make separate races for men and women (although the top finishers in the women’s race were allowed to compete in the subsequent men’s race, held several days later), setting the distances at 15 miles for men and 10 for women. Ethel Hertle proved victorious in the 1928 women’s race, but the 1928 men’s race proved something of a debacle; with temperatures reported at 44 degrees Fahrenheit (under 7 degrees Celsius), not a single entrant was able to complete the course.
The swimming marathons remained an annual event at the CNE over the next few years. Wrigley appears to have dropped its sponsorship after the Fourth Wrigley Marathon in 1929, after which the CNE took sole responsibility for its organization. Vierkoetter, who soon acquired the nickname the “Black Shark” in reference to the dark grease he preferred to use when swimming, had several more finishes in the top five but never won the Toronto event again. George Young, who was initially devastated by his failure in August 1927, resumed his training and managed to win the Toronto men’s 15-mile marathon in 1931.
Interest in the Toronto swimming marathons waned in the mid-1930s. The distances were first shortened, and then eventually the races were scrapped completely for several years until they were revived again in the late 1940s, when a renewed interest in long-distance swimming emerged.
In 1932, Young married Margaret Ravior, herself a three-time winner of the women’s Toronto swimming marathon, and it appears that he chose to retire from competitive swimming around this time. After working in the summer as a lifeguard on the Toronto Islands (the early money he had won for his teenage swimming exploits was apparently mismanaged by those around him), he relocated to the United States for several years and later took a job with the Niagara Parks Commission. He was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1955.
Vierkoetter chose to permanently settle in Toronto, became a naturalized Canadian citizen, and soon sent for his family in Germany to join him. In 1928, the Globe reported that when Vierkoetter had first come to Toronto to train in August 1927, “a group of German naturalized citizens tendered him a dinner and offered him a purse. Out of that gathering developed plans for the launching of a German club, which is now in operation at 70 Lombard Street under the name of the Deutscher Verein Harmonie.” After retiring from swimming, he eschewed competitive coaching, instead taking a job as a swimming instructor, first at the Baraca Club on Spadina and then at the East York Recreation Centre on Pape. “Vierkoetter figures he has taught 62,000 kids how to swim,” reported the Star‘s Joe Perlove in a 1962 nostalgia column, “among them, Marilyn Bell.”
In September 1953, Young, then 43, and Vierkoetter, then 52, were reunited at the CNE. “You don’t have to be a real old-timer to turn back the calendar and recall Ernst Vierkoetter finishing the gruelling 21-mile championship swim at the Exhibition,” wrote the Globe and Mail, “nor to remember George Young’s Catalina triumph of the same year, and his CNE victory four years later…This Saturday at 5 pm, these two ex-swimming greats will join Ben Gazel, a star of more modern vintage, in a match race over a half-mile distance and nostalgia should reign supreme.” Unfortunately the nostalgia race never took place—it was reportedly cancelled due to poor lake conditions.
Additional material from: The Globe (and Mail) (January 17, January 18, January 20, August 15, August 25, August 27, August 29, August 31, September 1, September 2, September 3, September 5, September 14, 1927; April 4, April 14, August 30, September 6, 1928; August 31, 1929; August 28, 1930; September 10, 1953; December 14, 1967; August 7, 1972); M. Ann Hall, The Girl and the Game: A History of Women’s Sport in Canada, 2nd ed. (University of Toronto, 2016); Bruce Kidd, The Struggle for Canadian Sport (University of Toronto, 1996); Bill Leveridge, “Marathon Swims” in Once Upon a Century: 100 Year History of the ‘Ex’ (J.H. Robinson, 1978: Toronto); Maclean’s (January 17, 1928); The Toronto Star (January 17, January 18, January 19, January 24, February 18, February 19, March 15, April 30, 1927, August 29, August 30, August 31, September 1, September 2, 1927; September 6, 1928; August 18, 1933; September 2, 1936; December 26, 1962; December 14, 1967; May 31, 1969; August 7, 1972); The Evening Telegram (August 25, August 26, August 29, August 30, September 1, 1927; December 14, 1967); Jon Wertheim, “Sea of Dreams: How William Wrigley Jr. brought the Wrigley Ocean Marathon to Life,” in Sports Illustrated (June 26, 2017).
Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.