A Toronto legend who made waves when she swam across Lake Ontario in 1954 was honoured this week when the city named its newest ferry after her.

Marilyn Bell was 16 years old when she made history by becoming the first person to successfully swim 51.5 kilometres across the lake. She swam for 21 hours straight to accomplish her goal.

Bell, who now goes by her married name Bell Di Lascio, saw the new ferry Wednesday. She told CTV's Canada AM Thursday that the experience was a "humbling, emotional" one.

"When I saw it I got choked up," she said. "It was really emotional, really emotional. I didn't expect that reaction."

Bell Di Lascio recalled the day she swam across the lake, saying she thought at the time that she probably wouldn't be able to accomplish the feat.

"I wanted to try," she said. "My goal was to swim further than the American swimmer. That's what it was about at that point."

She and American marathon swimmer Florence Chadwick started the race across Lake Ontario at the same time in September, 1954. They both took off from Youngstown, New York.

Chadwick, who was offered a lucrative financial deal by the CNE as a publicity stunt, had to give up after several hours of swimming when she began to vomit and suffer severe stomach cramps.

Bell Di Lascio, who felt snubbed by the CNE, offered to take on the challenge without pay. Although the planned route was 32 kilometres across the lake, the young Canadian actually had to swim nearly twice that distance because she was hampered by strong winds and a lack of quality navigation tools.

She arrived at Sunnyside Waterfront (which has since been renamed Marilyn Bell Park) 21 hours later to a crowd of about 300,000 people who were cheering her on.

Not only did Bell Di Lascio swim across the lake but she continued to make history for years to come.

A year after the Lake Ontario swim, Bell Di Lascio became the youngest person to swim the English Channel. She then went on to swim the Strait of Juan de Fuca in B.C. before retiring her swimsuit.

The 72-year-old Order of Ontario recipient says she has her coach to thank for pushing her, after she realized she wasn't fast enough to make the Olympics.

"My coach realized I had a spark to keep going and so he brought that out of me," she said.

After her career, Bell Di Lascio went on to get married and have four children - three daughters and a son, all of whom are swimmers.

Luckily, she said, none of them wanted to follow in her footsteps.

"I don't know how I would have reacted," she said about the possibility of her children wanting to swim across the lake. "I would have been supportive if I was really sure they were doing it because it was their goal as opposed to than try to reach their mother's goal."

Swimming across the lake wasn't always their mother's goal, though she did wonder about it since the time she was a little girl.

Bell Di Lascio told Canada AM that she remembered standing at the Toronto harbour with her father when she was 12, looking out across the lake. She had just swam her first mile and wondered out loud if anyone had ever swam across Lake Ontario.

"He said, 'No, nobody will ever do that'," she said. "That was the end of the conversation but I did think about it years later after I had accomplished it."

Even after she had accomplished it, Bell Di Lascio said she is amazed that her name continues to be honoured.

"It's an awesome thing to be remembered," she said. "To have people even still recognize the name is unbelievable. It's very humbling."