Cindy Nicholas

Cynthia Maria “Cindy” Nicholas, marathon swimmer, lawyer, politician (born 20 August 1957 in Toronto, ON; died 19 May 2016 in Scarborough, ON).  Cindy Nicholas was one of Canada’s most dominant marathon swimmers. In 1977, at the age of 20, she became both the first woman and youngest swimmer to complete a return crossing of the English Channel, setting a new world record of 19 hours and 55 minutes. She completed 19 crossings of the Channel between 1974 and 1982, including a record five return-trips, and earned the nickname “Queen of the Channel.” Nicholas was named the women’s world marathon swimming champion in 1976 and won the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as Canada’s female athlete of the year in 1977. She also practiced law and served as a Member of Provincial Parliament with the Ontario Liberal Party from 1987 to 1990. She is a Member of the Order of Canada, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame  and the International Swimming Hall of Fame.  

Early Years

Cindy Nicholas took up competitive swimming at the age of five and won her first medal when she was eight. Between 1964 and 1974, she set 16 Ontarian or Canadian age group records in freestyle, butterfly and backstroke events. She competed in both the Canadian National Championships and the Olympic trials in 1972 before turning to marathon swimming in 1974.

Marathon Swimming

Nicholas’s first marathon achievement, at age 16, was a crossing of Lake Ontario from Youngstown, New York, to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto on 16 August 1974. Her time of 15 hours and 10 minutes  bettered all previous records for both men and women, including Marilyn Bell’s 1954 record, which Nicholas broke by five hours and 52 minutes.

On 29–30 July 1975, Nicholas completed her first one-way swim of the English Channel in record time: nine hours and 46 minutes (a record that stood until 1988). She swam two more crossings in 1976, swimming from England to France in 10 hours and 20 minutes on 6 September, and from France to England in 10 hours and 24 minutes on 17 September. She was also named the women’s world marathon swimming champion by the World Federation of Swimming in 1976.

On 7 September 1977, at the age of 20, Cindy Nicholas became both the first woman and youngest swimmer to complete a return crossing of the English Channel, setting a new world record of 19 hours and 55 minutes — nearly 10 hours faster than the previous mark of 30 hours and three minutes set by American Jon Erikson. In 1979, she completed her sixth crossing and earned the nickname “Queen of the Channel.” By 1982, she had completed 19 crossings, including a record five round-trips.

In 1977, she became the first woman to swim across Chaleur Bay between the Gaspé peninsula and northern New Brunswick, completing the crossing in seven hours and 22 minutes. In 1978, she became the first person to swim it round-trip, which she completed in a time of 14 hours and 54 minutes.

Nicholas received the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as Canada’s female athlete of the year in 1977 and was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1979.

Career in Law and Politics

After retiring from swimming, Nicholas began a second career as a lawyer. She earned degrees from the University of Toronto and University of Windsor and was called to the Ontario Bar in 1984. In 1987, she was elected to the Ontario Legislature as a Liberal for the riding of Scarborough Centre. In 1989–90, she served as parliamentary assistant to Ontario’s solicitor general. She was defeated in the 1990 provincial election and returned to private practice. She died of liver failure at the age of 58.  


Honours and Awards

  • Scarborough Award of Merit, City of Scarborough (1974)
  • Toronto Award of Merit, City of Toronto (1975)
  • Women’s World Marathon Swimming Champion, World Federation of Swimming (1976)
  • Bobbie Rosenfeld Award, The Canadian Press (1977)  
  • Member, Order of Canada (1979)
  • Inductee, Scarborough Walk of Fame (2007)
  • Inductee, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (1993)
  • Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)
  • Inductee, Ontario Sports Hall of Fame (2003)
  • Inductee, International Swimming Hall of Fame (2005)  
  • Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)