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Moving tributes paid to ‘inspirational’ Commonwealth medallist Helen Smart

The swimming community has been stunned by the sudden passing of Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Helen Smart (nee Don-Duncan) at the age of 42.

Here, some of her closest team-mates in the pool share their memories of their ‘inspirational, vibrant, happy, gracious, funny and kind’ friend they affectionally called DD.

Helen Smart had a huge impact on so many people’s lives – and the outpouring of emotional tributes in her memory are testament to that.

The Team England and Great Britain backstroke specialist enjoyed an impressive career in the pool, the highlight of which included a bronze medal at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games and a place in the British team which competed at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

She has been described as an ‘inspiration to so many in the swimming world’ who was the most ‘amazing person’.

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.

She said: “Helen was special – the type of person you want your children to grow up to be like.

“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. 

So special to everyone

Helen Smart (nee Don-Duncan) who has died at the age of 42

“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.

“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, hard-working 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. 

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.”

Utmost respect and admiration

Five-times world champion James Hickman, who was part Olympics and Commonwealth Games teams with Helen, said she was a great person.

“Helen was always fun to be around and lifted anyone spirits just be being there,” said James, who won 38 international medals during his decade-long career at the highest level. 

“She left all the competing in the pool and was just a great person to have as a friend. 

“We did the European Championships in Sheffield and World Championships in Hong Kong together and she won medals in all those events – such a great swimmer. 

“Then we went on to the Sydney Olympics, too. I remember being disqualified in Kuala Lumpur and in her positive, matter-of-fact way she said ‘don’t worry about it, you’ve got lots of other races anyway’. 

“That was Helen through and through. 

“It’s been a real shock to hear of her passing and with her young family it’s very sad. I send my love and sympathy.”

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! 

Deserved all her successes

Helen Smart (nee Don-Duncan) who has died at the age of 42

“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.”

Rosalind Brett, who was part of the British Olympic team at the 2000 and 2004 Games and won relay medals at the World and European Championships plus the Commonwealth Games, said: “I had the privilege of racing on the GB team with Helen. 

“She was always such a gutsy swimmer and a ray of sunshine with her energy and smile. 

“So saddened to hear of her passing. My deepest sympathy to her family and friends.”

Tyldesley Swimming and Water Polo Club also paid tribute to Helen on its Facebook page.

It said: “Sad news over the weekend about the sudden passing of Olympian Helen Smart (nee Don-Duncan)

“Helen was an inspiration to so many in the swimming world. Our thoughts are with all the Smart / Don-Duncan family at this time.”

Jane Nickerson, Swim England chief executive, passed on her condolences to Helen’s family and friends.

“Everyone at Swim England was extremely saddened to hear the heartbreaking news about Helen,” said Jane.

“Her successes in the pool, especially for Team England at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games, will never be forgotten.

“Our deepest sympathies go to her immediate family, friends and everyone in the swimming community whose lives she touched.”

Career highlights

  • 1996: Gold medallist in 200m Backstroke at European Junior Championships
  • 1997: British champion in 200m Backstroke; 5th in 200m Backstroke at European Championships
  • 1998: British champion in 200m Backstroke; Bronze medallist in 200m Backstroke at Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games; 11th in 200m Backstroke at World Championships; Silver medallist in 200m Backstroke at European Short Course Championships
  • 1999: British champion in 200m Backstroke; 9th in 200m Backstroke at European Championships; Silver medallist in 200m Backstroke at World Short Course Championships
  • 2000: British champion in 200m Backstroke; 15th in 200m Backstroke at Sydney Olympic Games; 4th in 200m Backstroke at World Short Course Championships; 8th in 200m Backstroke at European Short Course Championships

British junior records

  • Short course: 2:14.28 in 200m Backstroke, 8 January 1997
  • Long course: 2:15.63 in 200m Backstroke, 11 April 1997

British senior records

  • Short course: 2:08.18 in 200m Backstroke, 4 April 1999
  • Long course: 2:11.25 in 200m Backstroke, 29 July 2000