‘It’s a nightmare we are waiting to wake up from’ – Former Olympic swimmer and school head Helen Smart died suddenly after going to bed on family holiday

Former Olympic swimmer Helen Smart tragically died after going to bed on a family trip to the Lake District – a place that she loved to visit and ‘felt like home’.

The mum-of-two’s loved ones have shared their heartache after her sudden death, describing her as an ‘adored’ and ‘much-loved’ sister, mother, wife and daughter who was ‘always smiling’ and ‘lit up every room’.

Helen, from Wigan, was only 42 when she passed away as the family were enjoying a weekend break away near Lake Coniston in Cumbria to celebrate her brother Rob’s 40th birthday. She was there with her parents, husband Craig, two children, her parents and other extended family.

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She had enjoyed paddleboarding in the lake on the evening they arrived, August 11, and was excited about going ghyll scrambling with family the next day, before the tragedy.

Trips to the Lake District were something Helen cherished, it was a place that Nicola Hill, whose sister is married to Helen’s brother Rob, said ‘always made her happy’ and ‘felt like home’ to her .

“It was Rob’s 40th birthday celebrations we had gone as a family. We were all together and then she went to bed and that was it,” Nicola said.

Helen Smart taking part in the Great North Swim raising money for Wigan Special Care Baby Unit
(Image: Family submit)

“It was just a massive shock. She wasn’t unwell so we can’t believe it. We are describing it as a nightmare that we are waiting to wake up from. It’s just being replayed in your head and not wanting to believe it.

“She got married in the Lakes at Low Wood Bay, we went there for her 40th and then her hen party too. She just loved being there and it always made her happy. She used to take her dogs walking there and we even went camping there. It was somewhere she always said she felt at home.”

A respected swimmer, Mrs Smart, formerly Don-Duncan, competed for Team GB in the 200m backstroke at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and won a number of other medals in the sport, including bronze medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and silvers at the World Short Course Championships of 1999. She was also a playing member of Pemberton Old Wigan DW Band.

Helen with two children and husband Craig
(Image: Family submit)

And following in the footsteps of her dad, also a teacher, Helen later went on to become the ‘beloved’ headteacher at Worsley Mesnes Community Primary School.

“She was always the motivator in every situation and she was the first one to get up and do anything,” Nicola added. “On the Friday night when we got there she wanted to go straight to the lake and go paddleboarding.

“She was always the type to seize the moment. She had amazing work ethic, built through her swimming career when she was very young which stuck with her through the rest of her life, from competing in the Olympics to her career as a school teacher. She was keen to bring up young children and encourage them to be the best they could be.

“Helen was always smiling and always lit up the room when she came in. She was really excited about her career as a teacher, I remember when she got the position last September and how excited she was and all her plans for the school.

“It still doesn’t feel real that she isn’t here. She was a fantastic person, adored by all of us, her brother Rob, husband Craig and her children.”

Mum Helen with her two children
(Image: Family submit)

Following her death, Helen’s dad John Don-Duncan shared an emotional public post online with a picture of Helen, himself and mum Linda, writing: “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.”

Former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies described Helen in a tweet as a ‘fierce competitor’ who always had a ‘huge smile on her face’ as ex-world champion British swimmer Mark Foster said she had an ‘infectious smile and laugh’.

The family now are trying to raise funds online to create a memorial in memory of Helen in her beloved Lake District. They hope to create a memorial that is also a ‘selfie spot’ due to Helen’s love of taking pictures.

Nicola said: “We want there to be a memorial in the Lake District, which is where she loved to be. We always called Helen the selfie queen because she loved selfies and was taking them on the Friday night when we were away. A selfie spot and somewhere that someone can go to remember their loved ones that have been lost and to keep her memory alive.

“The response from people so far has been overwhelming. It just makes you realise how small the world is and how many people think of her. It shows how much she was loved. Regardless of how long people knew her, she had such an impression on people.”

Following her death, Worsley Mesnes Community Primary School issued a public statement as Tyldesley Swimming and Water Polo Club paid tribute, writing: “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/DonDuncan family at this time.”

Donations can be made to the Gofundme for Helen’s memorial here.

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