Bill Connor : Pioneer of the Swimming Marathon
On August 21, 1955 William Francis “Billy” Connor lowered himself into Lake Memphremagog in Newport at 4:30 in the afternoon.
Early August 1955, about a month before my 20th birthday, I arrived home in Magog during a leave from the Canadian Navy’s minesweeper, HMCS Resolute. I looked like a sailor, I dressed like a sailor, I talked like a sailor, but I was barely out of high school and had only joined the RCN at the pointed invitation of the very dignified Chief of Police of Magog, Telesphore Lavoie.
I heard rumours, then received pointed questions about the recent attempt to swim the length of Lake Memphremagog by Mr. Lorenzo LaMontagne of Sherbrooke. Perhaps it is a bit pretentious of Magog, but we considered ourselves to be serious rivals of the larger city which boldly proclaimed itself “Queen City” of the Eastern Townships. Where were the mountains of Sherbrooke, where were its lakes? heck, even its river, the St. Francis received most of its water from Magog.
“Why don’t you try to swim the lake Bill?” That question must have been put to me over twenty times before I first gave it more than a derisive snort. True, the Navy had shown me that many hours swimming in a leisurely manner around the upper two or three miles of Memphremagog had made me a far faster man in the water than almost all of the competitors in the Armed Forces swim meets. But there’s no way to make a marathon swim out of half mile sprints, or shorter distances.
Let me say here, for the record the distance talked of was the generally accepted 32 miles. That distance may be the road distance between Newport and Magog, but I was familiar with military topographical maps and knew the distance was 26.25 miles. Myths die hard and it became easier to go along with the crowd than try to contradict and minimize the truly admirable feat that Lorenzo had made in only failing to swim the length of the lake by less than 3 miles.
I still would not consider swimming that distance. But, providentially in the light of subsequent years of living, Zeke Robinson, a respected teacher, mentor and former athlete, told me that it was not a ridiculous idea. From coaching hockey and basketball he perhaps know I had what it took. Well, years of being the runt of the class had not convinced me, but I devised a way to test my chances. With Merlin Emslie as a witness, I dove off the Anthemis dock in Magog and swam unaccompanied up to the Three Sister Islands and on to the Hermitage Country Club. I was cold, and tired of swimming after only 3 miles, so I got out of the water and ran across the golf links. Then I was tired of running. So I climbed back into the water. You see, I had to get to a phone which I believed was on Bryant’s Landing. I had passed the point of no return and it seemed like the fastest way to get to food, clothing and transportation. I was wrong! At Bryant’s Landing there was no phone, and no friendly faces. But Zeke’s cottage was only a mile and a half away back across the lake.
When I arrived, Zeke was not there, so I committed a rather skillful break and enter and phoned for a taxi to drive me back to Magog. That was on Wednesday afternoon. The swim would take place on Saturday. Actually I did not know Saturday would be the day, because first of all I had to recruit sponsors, find some adult guides and provide myself with former classmates as a Trust Bank whom I could count on when I needed honest answers. I was quite familiar with the mind games played on Canada’s real swimming sweetheart, Marilyn Bell. I owe a lot to her, because my swimming of Memphremagog in a poor imitation of her Lake Ontario feat, would alter my perception of my own self and guide me to a little bit more of the maturity which I needed. ’nuff said. Euclide Langlois came to me in a miraculous manner which I do not yet understand. There were a few others in the francophone community of this very unified town. My team assembled in an almost organic manner. I was babied and coddled and given absolutely nothing to worry about except swim.
Yes, there were doubters, once word got out of my intentions. A local grocer saw me running in endless circles around the Hatley, Tarrant and Bellevue circle. “What are you doing?” he inquired. “I am going to swim the lake.” The response could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be construed as positive. But there was a famous English Walkathon man living near to me. I submitted to his examination of my motivation and physical ability. He was for it. That said, the game was on.
A few articles in the local paper prompted a shipmate from Thetford to come to my help, but I was actually well provided for from the ranks of Magog High School grads, and Princess Elizabeth High School youngsters too. How rash, brash and lucky I was. Only my father seemed to have any sense, “Bloody stupid,” he snorted, “well , I’ll drop you off at the wharf in Newport, and they (meaning anyone else) can bring you back.”
So, at 1 pm. we crossed the border into Vermont. Customs asked would we be coming back via this route (Stanstead). Mom said, “most of us, but Billy will be swimming back.” I was given a special permission to not have to dock and report in at the Owl’s Head custom station. Good thing. I slept half an hour at the Newport Hotel, since razed. That was a donation from the people of Newport. How many times had I enjoyed the hospitality of that town when coming up by SS ANTHEMIS. At 2:30 I rose, ate two bananas and was heavily greased with vasoline and lanolin for my ears, which are very prone to water intrusions causing earaches.
Dressed in bathing suit and kimono, I and fifteen or so entourage must have made a strange sight on the Main Street of Newport, but only attracted a crowd of some 200 people at the dock. There was some milling around and I finally realized that all the pictures had been taken, the power outboard and rowboats were provisioned and the delay was only created by my not being aware that I was in charge of when we would begin. Well, no sense wasting energy. “Here I go,” I said to mom.
Contrary to many reports I did not dive off the dock. I was wearing a bathing cap and goggles and they would have come off too easily with the vaseline covering. Instead I tried to lower myself into the lake, It was surprisingly cold, but that was probably due to nerves. Big mouth had been shot off once too often and now it was sink or swim, or is that swim or sink. The surprise of the cold distracted me so that I held onto the wharf too long and took the weight of my body on my arm, stretching the large muscle behind the upper arm. This is the main power source of swimming. It was with the ignorance given to fools that I failed to even consider postponing the swim. I took several long strokes for the camera, then cut into my more usual rapid, weaker strokes that I would describe as “too thrashing”, now that I have learned to swim.
Fifteen minutes into the swim and still not daring to consider what I had gotten myself in for, I took a peek ahead. The water was extremely smooth, no afternoon breeze. Course was shape to track close by the point on the eastern side of the lake. I threw up the bananas, my eye glasses fogged up and the grease just plain bugged me. I believe that it was at this moment that everything coalesced. I told myself, “no complaints, no excuses, no second try.” The name of the RCN ship in which I served was HMCS Resolute. I very consciously decided to adopt that one word motto.
By now Alfred Whittier had also made some sort of resolve. I have never been able to understand how two boys, so different in character, could be such close buddies. It has been that way since a long time before the 1950 incident in which I threw a live grenade at him and it exploded. That was at The Valcartier army camp for Royal Canadian Army Cadets.
My father John Euclide Langlois (sponsor standing) and childhood friends, Garth Fields and Donnie Parker. Alf Whittier is in the boat; midships starboard side, he will be the one rowing from Newport to Vermont
Difficult too, is my ability to understand why a younger, not so close a friend as Garth Fields should undertake to be the nearest person to me. In daylight Alfie rowed, taking back sightings on the fading Newport shores. Garth held a white towel as an aiming point for me. In this manner I was spared the necessity of raising my head and seeing where I was going. That was completely unrehearsed but one of the largest factors in energy conservation. There are distance swimmers this day, twice as fast, twice as long as my Memphremagog cruise, who had not yet learned nor adopted this method of saving neck muscles.
At night the towel would be replaced with a flashlight held not on me, but on the side of the rowboat. Before night however, five or six hours would transpire. Swimmers, among them Lorne Meek, Donnie Parker, Roger LaPlante, would drop into the water to encourage me. At first I tried to keep ahead of them, later I believe they tried to make it look as if I was still faster than they were. The mental games had begun.
My high school principal, Mr. Stephen Olney had often stressed the value of athletics in building of character. Belatedly I began to understand what he had been about. Now comes something which I cannot explain. Years later I tried to convince Mr. Olney that he had a brother and that his brother had showed up with his daughter, a teen age girl and a good swimmer. They came along with us for a few miles. But, and this is a big but, Mr. Olney claims that he never had a brother!! Time to eat. Cold pablum, cold chicken broth, a spoonful of jelly, brush my teeth. Cold coffee to avoid the cramps that hot beverages might have produced.
Since a person cannot really rest in the water, it is necessary to keep swimming. I also believed that alternating between the four or five strokes that are available is counter productive. Since then there have been many swimmers of far greater skill and prowess than I. Some have doubled my distance in their swim, one, a girl, even duplicated the distance in far rougher waters….and did it using the butterfly stroke, the most strenuous and fastest stroke of all.
The sun was now setting behind a Vermont peak off my port quarter. Ahead the shadow of Owl’s Head framed a darkening alley way, stretching around Molson’s Island and on to McPherson Bay. Tiredness was making it easier to maintain a steady rhythm extremely hypnotic in its effect on my mind. My mind, that is where the whole swim was taking place. Thought would have produced interference. Even the very crew that was not so closely tied to my efforts, so dedicated to our success, was falling silent. If you were to ask me now, what was said during the next eleven hours, I would have repeated a grand total of about 100 words.
Swim, eat, swim, eat, wind rising but it is from the starboard quarter which actually helped. A need to adjust the stroke to take advantage of the slight push from behind and downslide toward my bow. We cross “The Line”. Someone sings, “Oh Canada”. We thank the water patrol craft from the U.S. Coast Guard for their best wishes and for their assistance in keeping the curious at bay and down wind. Occasionally the smell of outboard oil lies on the water and it is not pleasant.
Uncle Norman arrives with food for those on board, also blankets. Far ahead Pit Lavoie and his friend are blinking a light. Alf turns and faces the line, lines up the rowboat on a point on the shore far astern and continues rowing. I don’t know it, but his hands are already blistered and bleeding. Rags must have helped a bit.
Owl’s Head is looming in the darkness to port, close by we change course to port to pass by Centre Island and take a plumb line to Molson Point. Again I do not realize that, of the 15 to 20 people on the lake, now, I am the most to be envied. The glory will be for me, but the labour, the cold, the damp food will be for them. I am being pampered outrageously. I drop a paper cup into the lake, someone is there to pick it up. I slow down, someone jumps into the dark water to be a little closer to me. Garth is just a dark paper silhouette in the stern of the rowboat, Alfred hidden from sight by the light which sometimes has to be shone in my eyes to check my condition. I can sense a rising doubt in myself. This doubt is put to route by the voices I hear and I remind myself that I absolutely have to trust them. The games with my mind go on, but I do not realize it. What a miracle of support.
I have been familiar with Lake Memphremagog for a long time. Before I was born my uncles had both skated round trip to Newport, and had rowed the length at least once. This is an incredible body of water. Rich verdant hills, opulent farms and majestic brooding mountains. Owl’s Head, of course, but also who can doubt the reality of the sleeping elephant guarding Sargent’s Bay. Who can doubt that this land is blessed by the numerous Sunday School camps and of course, the blessed songs of Gregorian Chant that praise God and His Creation from the ever growing farmlands and workshops of St. Benoit du Lac. Oh, lovely grandeur of nature and the strong bonds of French/English comrades on this minor progression now becoming a pilgrimage. My spirits soar, my mental arithmetic kicks in, so many miles gone, so much time, estimated time of arrival, far ahead of the 4:30 planned. It does not occur to me that I am not allowing for increasing fatigue, or for the very limited experience available to me. Then, like a stupendous change of pace and tone from Beethoven Symphony, perhaps the 6th or more ominously, the 9th, a storm. Tales of this storm have become greatly exaggerated. My own lack of modesty will not let me “Play them down”. Truth is, I hardly remember, nor ever did, more than a few moments of the next two hours. Facts are, it was at MacPherson Bay, so the lack of shallow water prevented too high a build up of waves, deep water waves the least under these conditions. For some time I know I was out of the view of those accompanying me. Goodness knows they needed a break by now. Whatever the cause, most people say I disappeared. I don’t know, but if this causes any shame to be cast on anyone, it is just one of those legends that I have been persuaded to believe.
I do remember whistling shrilly to invoke a silence upon the various voices that were making suggestions as to where I might be. Some even say I was in the boat. I wasn’t. When deep silence greeted my whistle we were quickly able to resume this voyage. I can call it a voyage now, because it now exceeded any navy trip that I had been able to undertake without becoming sea sick. The storm clouds that succeeded the storm itself provided a lot less lighting than the flashes of thunder that had accompanied it. The stars were invisible, of course. But now came the festival of lights. The eastern shore responded to the “voices on the lake.” People remembered that a local boy was out there in the dark and the cold. Lights came on which would have given night bombers a perfect outline of the region. Swim, eat, swim, eat, swear a little bit, exercise a bit of selfish petulance. Back stretches now became very important too. Still dark, no bathing suit required. What’s that peeking around the corner. Lord’s Island. Heck, that’s only 8 miles to go. Sargent’s Bay opening to port, off to starboard is the notch that cradles Georgeville. Out comes Dr. Luc Bergeron. He is unable to follow good medical practice by laying hands on me for pulse or temperature, but I seem to be conscious. It is one thirty or so in the morning. Ten miles to go.
Swim, eat, swim eat, calculate, stretch, swim, eat, swim, eat, puke.
Now it is almost Bryant’s Landing to port, dawn has arisen and the miserable conditions of the little flotilla is apparent even to me. I am moving very much more slowly. More pacers jump into the water, I try to respond by “burning” them, and I am successful. My spirits rise, then fall. Over in Cedar Harbour Zeke Robinson is ‘roused from his sick bed. He is taken out in an outboard boat. Zeke, whose judgment I respected and whose judgment has thus gotten me into the very sorry state of feeling sorry for myself, is coming to the rescue. He is aware of athletic difficulties unappreciated by most people. His words and courage in the face of his illness inspire us all. On to Magog. Boats begin to join us, oil fumes increase, cottage people abandon breakfast, forego church. From Sherbrooke, home of Lorenze LaMontagne comes the news, “He’s still at it! He did not quit in the storm”. I have heard that tears were shed.
Bryant’s Landing to Green Point and the Hermitage, no incidents, just steady slogging. I am now aware that quitting is beyond my choice. These now hateful companions aren’t going to let their misery be wasted. School chums begin to arrive. Sometimes I am so tired, so very tired, but I know now that I can finally impress someone. Wayne Gaunt, practically a next door neighbour arrives on the bow of a Peterborough outboard. Three Sisters to starboard. “hell”, I say to myself, “I’ve swum that distance before”, piece of cake, except that I’d never swum that distance after already having crossed 22 or so more other miles. But I am now flying. Dear Lake Memphremagog has sheltered and sustained the young boy who loves her so much. All the fishing trips with dad and grandfather, solitary rows to picnics on hidden beaches, soft evening winds, heavy with the lovely humidity of summer evenings before rains. I love this Gracious Lady, Memphremagog, I am grateful, and I am inspired.
The Roman Catholic Mass gets out early, the radios exhort people to get down to the beach. The Reverend Gustaffson frees his flock. Next Sunday he will publicly congratulate our whole party in his church. Faster and faster go the strokes, I am detached from my body. There might be fifty boats out here, half a mile from shore, the wind is rising but again I am blessed with stern waves. I cannot hear the crowd on shore, but the handlers assure me that, they are glad to see you and now it is time. The water has been shelving and is less than three feet below my face. Yes, my bathing suit is on. Yes it is on, leave me alone. Well, okay, see! My fingers touch the sand. Cherry River (Orford) has spent a few hundred years making this a gentle grade and easy to walk on, easy for someone who still has full control of his legs. I try to stand, my legs insist on swimming. I try to walk, my legs insist on swimming. People rush to help. NO. Very attentive to their duty and the strong rules against help, my handlers and friends clear the way. Just off the beach, and already forgotten by me, the most wonderful bunch of people leave me to what I think is my glory. No. No one has ever been assisted to achieve what was so far beyond his natural talents. I confess that I stood up, staggered a bit and then proclaimed, “I did it”. How much more truth would be in the words “We” instead. Thank you, everyone. The Lord knows I needed that bit of success in my life. If I placed too much emphasis on it, well, 45 years are teaching me, no man is alone.
So, sometime after eleven AM on an overcast Sunday, I came ashore, Signed my first autograph for Dr. Wood’s daughter, missed a chance to get engaged. Took a brief rest in the Cabana Motel and then started a gruelling day. Motorcade, dinner with the Mayor and a blow out of a party at the Magog Hotel thanks to my friend and wrestling idle, Armand Simard. A lovely lady sang a solo for me, “My Hero”. I am so happy that I finally realized, at 1am Monday, that we had truly been a team coming down that lake. I was just the point man.
There followed some ten or so long distance swims, nothing over 15 miles was successful. As a fact the following year’s attempt at Lake Ontario was a not too well advised effort. I still had not learned the value of training and conditioning, nor had I become aware of the incredible streak of luck that I had been given in the form of the team that came down the lake that August night.
In a few years I had filled out into 235 pounds of what could never pass for muscle. In 1964 I realized that I was fat. I set out to run myself into shape. At a track in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia I went to “do” a mile. After 460 yards I sat down and cried. The next day I picked up a book, Aerobics, by Colonel Kenneth Cooper, M.P.H. of the U.S. Air Force. The regime taught by Mr. Cooper replaced the 5BX plan then in use by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Less than 9 months after I started the plan, all on my own without coaching. I was running 6 mile races, then 20 kilometer runs.
On my 50th birthday I came fourth in a Triathlon against over 90 University students in Moncton, NB. In the next 12 years I won Olympic Distance Triathlon’s in my age group. Now there are dozens of ‘triathletes’ in Canada and I believe that the continued growth of this sport, bodes well for Canada’s overall fitness outlook, Olympic hopes and mental happiness of our people.
Until 1999, I was age group winner of 8 of 11 triathlons at the Olympic distance
Magog, so heaven blessed in its natural beauty and the energy of its people, is an ideal spot to learn swimming, sailing, skiing, running, hockey, of course, and even hot dog skiing. It’s here, use it.
Thanks again Billy, your friends from Magog will always remember what you accomplished.
Billy has been acclaimed and received well earned honours. His mother, Mrs. Margaret Connor, had been the provincial swimming champion in 1932 and 1933. Once pregnant with Billy, we can easily believe that the love of swimming must have been inbred in him. He was born on September 26, 1935.
Billy Connor presently lives in New Brunswick. He is married to Shirley and father to Michael, Christine, and Gale. He also has 3 grandchildren.
In the summer of 2001, on July 22 at 13h30, the City of Magog officially dedicated the Merry Point Service Building in honor of Billy Connor.
Comments by Richard B. – Summer 2017
I have being swimming in Orford Lake for many years. I am part of six generations of family who have a cottage there. On July 29 2017, while having my usual swim across the lake to the beach at the old Manor Orford site and reaching the shore, there was a man standing near the beach to greet me, he said that he wanted to congratulate me on my swim, getting a closer look at this man I recognized him from photos I had seen, I said “You’re Billy Connor, the first man to swim Lake Memphremagog”. I climbed on shore, we talked for fifteen or so minutes, Bill’s wife met my wife Lise and we continued talking.
Before leaving, we invited Billy and his wife to our cottage, the following day, Billy came to our cottage where my son, daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren had the opportunity to meet Billy, we passed a pleasant hour together reminiscing of his youthful exploits, it was a very pleasant time for all of us. Although Billy is on in years, you can still see all the determination in his eyes that helped him accomplish his exploit in 1955 he an inspiration for me and my family! It seems now to give me a energy boost every time I swim Lake Orford and think of my meeting Billy.
We wish you health and happiness and hope to see you at our cottage next summer, stay well and keep that fire of determination burning Billy. Here is a big hug from all my family!