Helen Don-Duncan Commonwealth Games 1998

Tributes paid to Olympian Helen Smart

14 Aug 2023

British Swimming are deeply saddened to hear of the death of Olympian Helen Smart (née Helen Don-Duncan), aged 42.

All our thoughts and condolences are with Helen's family and friends, as well as those in the swimming community who trained, competed and worked with Helen during her time in the sport.

Backstroke specialist Helen - who trained at Ashton Central Swimming Club during her rise through the ranks - competed for Britain in the 200m Backstroke at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, having set a then-British record in qualifying her Olympic place at that year's trials and going on to place 15th at her debut Games at just 19. 

Before that Olympic experience, she claimed a bronze medal in the 200m Backstroke at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, as well as silvers in the same event at the World Short Course Championships of 1999 and the European Short Course Championships the year before. As a junior, she became European Junior champion in the 200m Backstroke in 1996.

Following her swimming career, Helen went into teaching and was headteacher at a primary school in Wigan, as well as performing in the Pemberton Old Wigan Band.

Helen Smart nee Don-Duncan 1998 World Champs
Helen Smart (nee Don-Duncan)

World and Commonwealth champion backstroker Katy Sexton made her Olympic debut alongside Helen in Sydney. Paying tribute to her teammate and friend, 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."

Sarah Ruckwood (née Price) - a Commonwealth champion in the 200m Backstroke at Manchester 2002 - also shared memories of Helen, in and out of the water, saying: "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. I am so sorry that life after swimming meant we did not manage to see each other over the years due to distance and other life pressures. DD did always and will always have a very special place in my heart, as 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.

“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 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.

“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 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 you know exactly why your mummy was so special to everyone. Thank you, Helen, for always being there – I love you.”

There are more tributes to Helen on the Swim England website.