Saturday, 2 Mar 2024

Parents of Olympic swimmer Helen Smart 'can't comprehend' death at 43

‘How could she simply go to sleep and never wake up?’: Heartbroken parents of Olympic swimmer Helen Smart who died suddenly aged 43 say they ‘cannot comprehend’ her death as they pay tribute to their ‘pride and joy’

  • Helen Smart swam in the 2000 Olympics under the name Helen Don-Duncan

The heartbroken parents of Olympic swimmer Helen Smart have said they ‘cannot comprehend’ her sudden death aged 43 and asked: ‘How could she simply go to sleep and never wake up?’

John Don-Duncan paid tribute to his daughter on Facebook – sharing a photo of him, his partner, Linda, and Helen smiling together in a family photo. 

He wrote: ‘Helen was our pride and joy… we are so proud of her… she lit up a room as soon as she arrived.. Linda and I can’t comprehend how she could just simply go to sleep and not wake up?! xx’ 

Helen was a world level competitive swimmer and backstroke specialist who won a bronze medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur and silver medals at the World and European Championships.

After representing Great Britain at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, she decided to retire and become the headteacher of Worsley Mesnes Community Primary School on Clifton Street in Wigan.

John Don-Duncan paid tribute to his daughter on Facebook – sharing a photo of him, his partner, Linda, and Helen smiling together in a family photo

He wrote: ‘Helen was our pride and joy… we are so proud of her… she lit up a room as soon as she arrived.. Linda and I can’t comprehend how she could just simply go to sleep and not wake up?! xx’

 Helen died ‘suddenly’ aged 43 after retiring from the sport to become a headteacher

She swam at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 under her maiden name Helen Don-Duncan

Helen’s husband, Craig Smart, said that his wife ‘loved the school, staff, children and parents so much’ and was ‘so proud to reach her goal of being headteacher’. 

In a tweet, Olympic medallist Sharron Davies also paid tribute, writing: ‘This is very sad news. Always a pleasure to interview & always a huge smile on her face. A Fierce competitor.’

Husband Mr Smart added: ‘I remember only last week she said her goal was to get the school to outstanding and that she had the right staff to achieve this! I hope you all keep learning like champions.

‘Please learn from this and live your best life, no regrets, take lots of photos, make memories and keep smiling just like Helen always did!’ 

Others have described as an ‘inspiration to so many in the swimming world’ who was the most ‘amazing person’. 

No further details have been released yet regarding her death. 

Posting a statement on Facebook Alison Halliwell, the school’s chair of governors, said: ‘It is with great sadness and regret that I have to announce the sudden death of our beloved headteacher, Mrs Helen Smart.

‘Our heart-felt condolences are sent to Helen’s family at this very difficult time. I know this news will be a shock and cause great sadness to our community. 

‘I want to reassure you that the governors of Worsley Mesnes School are working with the local authority and school to ensure that our children, staff and parents will receive the necessary support in the coming weeks.

‘Further information/updates will be issued as and when they are available.’

Alongside winning numerous medals throughout her career, Helen came 15th in the 200m backstroke event at the 2000 Olympics.  

She was also a playing member and integral part of the Pemberton Old Wigan Band for more than 30 years.

Some of Helen’s closest teammates in the pool also shared their memories of their ‘inspirational, vibrant, happy, gracious, funny and kind’ friend they affectionally called DD.

Helen’s husband has paid an emotional tribute to his wife telling people to ‘keep smiling like Helen did’

Olympic medallist Sharron Davies (pictured) has led tributes to Team GB swimmer Helen Smart after her ‘sudden’ death aged 43

In a tweet, Ms Davies wrote: ‘This is very sad news. Always a pleasure to interview & always a huge smile on her face. A Fierce competitor.’

Helen celebrates her win in the Women’s 200 Metres Backstroke, where she broke the British record

Helen pictured outside of her school Worsley Mesnes Community Primary School where she was headteacher 

Rachael Ashcroft, who swam alongside Helen in Lancashire, English and British teams, said she was lucky enough to have called Helen her friend for 32 years.

‘Helen was special – the type of person you want your children to grow up to be like,’ she said.

‘From the moment I met her, aged 11 at Everton Park Sports Centre, I immediately liked her. I think we bonded over our slightly unusual and unique surnames and, of course, our love of swimming. I just found her easy to be around, especially when I was so nervous before I competed. 

‘Helen’s steely determination and natural competitive spirit always inspired me. We competed against each other many times but somehow it always felt like we were competing with each other, helping each other along the way.

‘Her achievements of numerous British records, British titles, European, Commonwealth, World medals and achieving her Olympic dream came as a result of her discipline, commitment, dedication and belief in herself.

‘Despite her success, she was always humble and down to earth and she always helped others who’d had a bad race or didn’t achieve what they wanted to rather than focus on herself. I know she picked me up a few times from bitter disappointment and made me smile.

‘I never heard a bad word uttered by anyone about Helen and how could they. She was always kind, thoughtful and looked after everyone, especially me.

‘The end of Helen’s swimming career did not see the end of her focus and drive.

‘Helen always threw herself into everything that she believed in – swimming teaching and coaching, her outstanding commitment to Pemberton Band, her career as a brilliant teacher and head teacher, maintaining her friendships and her many other interests.

Helen also went on to win a number of medals throughout her career

Helen dives on her way to the fastest time in the heats of the 200m backstroke at the XVI Commonwealth Games

Helen (right) smiles alongside Australia’s Giaan Rooney after she set a new Commonwealth record for the women’s 100m backstroke

‘Her main focus, though, was her beautiful family who she adored more than anything. They are so very close and all did so much together. Her two little children, Heidi and Stanley, and her husband, Craig, were her pride and joy and she was the best mummy and wife.

‘I will do all I can to make sure that they know exactly why their mummy was so special to everyone. Thank you, Helen, for always being there – I love you.’

World and Commonwealth champion backstroker Katy Sexton made her Olympic debut alongside Helen in Sydney.

Paying tribute to her, Katy said: ‘I’ve been trying to find the words to say about this but am so shocked by the news, I don’t know what to say.

‘Helen was such a vibrant character, always happy and a great friend and roommate.

‘She was such a dedicated athlete and had an amazing work ethic which she carried into her life outside of sport.

‘She will be greatly missed and my biggest sympathies go to her family.’

Nick Sellwood said he was fortunate to have coached Helen at club level and with national teams.

He said: ‘She was a very personable, hardworking and talented individual, who was a pleasure to have in any team environment.

‘She always made time for younger swimmers in the group, sharing experiences and advice for their benefit.

‘Anyone who came into contact with Helen benefitted. A great loss.’

Karen Pickering, who won 34 international medals during her glittering career, including eight golds at the World Championships and Commonwealth Games, fondly recalled Helen’s sense of humour.

Helen and Katy Sexton are interviewed after a race by television

Helen (far right) arrives with other members of the British swim team on the Gold Coast, Australia, for a pre Olympic training camp

She said: ‘I was lucky to be on teams with Helen or DD as she was known. Helen was a fierce competitor, gritty in training but humble in her victories and medal successes.

‘I will remember her most for her sense of humour, laughter and the smile that rarely left her face. Any lane or room was happier when she was in it.’

Sarah Price – a Commonwealth champion in the 200m Backstroke at Manchester 2002 – also shared memories of Helen, in and out of the water.

She said: ‘Myself and Helen shared a very special chapter of our lives – our passion for swimming.

‘Swimming brought us together, a northern lass and a southern girl that shared the same love for swimming backstroke.

‘I am so grateful for all the memories we had together travelling the world, where we spent so much time training and racing.

‘I had the utmost respect and admiration for DD as a swimmer and friend. Whether we were racing, training or just hanging out, she was so gracious in all she did and was extremely funny and kind.

‘She was a tough competitor in the pool as well as the most caring friend out of it.

‘I remember Helen most though as someone who would always brighten a room when she walked in it and her infectious laugh would bring a smile to everyone.

‘It is no surprise that she went on from swimming to become a primary school headteacher working with and inspiring all around her.

‘DD did always and will always have a very special place in my heart, as the most amazing person.’

Sarah Johnson trained alongside Helen at St Helens between 1995 and 2000 and said she had a huge impact on so many people.

‘You’d find Helen always with a smile on her face,’ said Sarah. ‘Even during and after 40 x 100s backstroke!

From left to right Sarah Price, Katy Sexton, Helen and Joanna Fargus before they competed in the Women’s 200m Backstroke

‘She was the person that everyone looked up to at the club. She was kind and really funny – always keen to include everyone and made the hours and hours of training week in, week out, much more enjoyable.

‘She trained harder than everyone and deserved all of her successes in swimming, but would have so much fun along the way – hard to do when you’re looking at a black line or the ceiling for 25 hours a week.

‘We caused a lot of havoc for our coach, Ivor Tattum, who sadly died in 2004. We once put all of the cutlery from a table in a restaurant in Canada in his coat pockets – he found them when he’d got back to the car, and had to return it all red faced.

‘Helen was truly a bright light in the swimming community in the North West – the impact she had on so many people has been immeasurable.’

Several other people posted on to Facebook saying Helen was ‘so caring’ and ‘wonderful. 

One person wrote: ‘Devastating news. I am grateful to have been taught by a wonderful teacher and a beautiful soul.’

Tyldesley Swimming & Water Polo Club also paid tribute by saying: ‘Sad news over the weekend about the sudden passing of Olympian Helen Smart. 

‘Helen was an inspiration to so many in the swimming world. Our thoughts are with all the Smart/DonDuncan family at this time.’

A spokesperson for Pemberton Old Wigan Band said: ‘We are all heartbroken and our love and thoughts are with Craig and the children.

‘With her enthusiasm and joy for playing, Helen was ecstatic when the band won the Second Section North West Area title in 2022, followed by a brilliant runner-up finish at the National Final and promotion to the First Section for the first time in the band’s history.

‘Helen brought her champion mindset and inspirational teaching methods to each and every rehearsal and thrived on developing the next generation of players.’ 

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