Canada's Sports Hall of Fame Canadian History and Society: Through the Lens of Sport Virtual Museum of Canada


Astonishing perserverance in the face of adversity, iron-like will and determination to overcome all the odds alongside a kind humility were the amazing characteristics that summarized Winnie Roach-Leuszler's career. She was a remarkably strong woman and seemed able to overcome any obstacles that fell in her path. The young Winnie had grown up in a family of eleven children but had a swimming talent beyond her years. In 1944 Roach-Leuszler was named Canada's all-round athlete of the year by a sports reporter and that same year she was one of 150,000 women to join the pioneering Canadian Women's Army Corp (CWAC).

Facing a hostile public opinion, these were the first women - other than nurses - to make a significant contribution to the army alongside their male counterparts. Prior to this time, women's roles in Canadian society had typically been at home and in care-giving occupations but service in the CWAC was the first time these traditional roles began to change. Uniformed women learnt military skills and training on a par with their male counterparts, such as ciphering, decoding, signaling, range-finding, spotting anti-aircraft duties and vehicle maintenance. Nonetheless, true to the dominant values in society at that time, the most typical jobs remained clerical or administrative.

After the War, Roach-Leuszler was devoted to her young family but continued to excel at swimming. Three months after her first child was born, she placed second in the five-mile World Swimming Championships; an achievement she repeated the following year, when she was four months pregnant with her second child. Yet her most heroic achievement came in 1951. Roach-Leuszler's third child had just been born when the top-20 distance swimmers in the world were challenged to swim the English-French channel. Handing her 9-month daughter to a friend and placing her two infant children in a local convent,
Roach-Leuszler swam with great courage and focus to overcome all the problems the bad weather could throw at her. But in a terrible turn of events when she was 100 yards from shore the tide turned carrying her 10km back out to sea. Despite her exhaustion and fatigue, her hopes and dreams, and the famous white cliffs of Dover fading further away, Roach-Leuszler simply worked harder refusing to give in. She eventually completed the swim in 13 hours becoming the first Canadian - male or female - to complete the magnificent feat.

Although Roach-Leuszler returned to a hero's welcome she was largely forgotten. But given her make-up this lack of fame was never an issue for her, "I always thought that if you do something because you wish to do it, then forget about all those other things. Just go out and do it to the best of your ability."

swim badge with two mermaid design
Feted as the "Channel Conqueror" Winnie Roach Leuszler was the first Canadian to swim the English Channel. She showed her vision and commitment from an early age: "From the time I could remember I said I would swim the channel. I didn't say I'd try, I said I would".
Collection: Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

Photograph of Winnie Roach Leuszler in a bathing suit
Winnie swam the English Channel from Cap Griz-Nez in France to Dover, England. She was on a record time and could see her destination when the tides pulled her back out to sea. Despite this major set-back she persevered. "No matter how tough it is, I'll never crawl ashore. I'm determined to walk ashore".
Collection: Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

Woman's Army uniform tunic
As women entered into military service in World War Two they often found themselves taking over jobs. Winnie Roach served as a private and often competed in military sporting events with a will and commitment to win, characteristics that showed in her Channel swim.
Collection: Army Museum of Alberta

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