Olympic Athlete Helen Smart Passed Away at 42 Years Old—Her Family Is Left in the Dark

What was Helen Smart’s cause of death? The Olympic swimmer turned headteacher suddenly died in her sleep at 42 years old in August 2023.

Jamie Lerner - Author

Aug. 17 2023, Published 8:23 a.m. ET

It's always scary when someone like an Olympic athlete, supposed to be the epitome of health, passes away too young. On Aug. 16, 2023, the world learned that Olympic swimmer Helen Smart died a few days earlier in her sleep at 42 years old. She competed under the name Helen Don-Duncan, her maiden name, in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

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In the early hours of Aug. 12, 2023, Helen’s 4-year-old daughter, Heidi, found Helen unresponsive during a family vacation. The family has since paid tribute on social media, where Helen’s friends and fans have shared their own condolences en masse. But how did Helen die — what was her cause of death?

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Olympic swimmer Helen Smart’s (née Don-Duncan) cause of death is currently unknown.

News of Helen’s death rocked the world since it’s almost unheard of for a healthy 42-year-old to die suddenly in their sleep. Even more tragically, Helen was first found by Heidi when Heidi wanted to crawl into bed with her mother at 4 a.m. on the family vacation.

Helen’s mother, Linda, told Mailonline, “Heidi had woken up in the night and tried to get into bed with her. She said to her daddy, ‘Mummy won't wake up.’ He said, ‘Oh she must be very tired Heidi—you go back to bed.’ He put the [flashlight] on and he said later that when he looked he could tell.”

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“We are just in so much shock,” she continued. “You jump from believing it to not believing it. She had been paddle boarding a few hours before and had never even been ill apart from her knees swelling from swimming. We're distraught. They don't know what it is but they think it must have happened shortly after she went to bed. She just died in her sleep.”

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Linda shared the horrific story of what happened throughout the evening. “At midnight, she went to bed telling me, ‘I'll go to bed now mum as I know I'll be woken at 6 a.m. by Heidi. I just want to get some sleep in as I've had a long day.' The family had all been together in Cumbria celebrating her brother Robert’s 40th birthday.

“Robert woke us up at 4 a.m. and said, 'Mum, Dad you need to keep up—we think Helen's died,’” Linda recounted. “We just ran up and followed up and there she was in bed. I touched her foot and she was cold. I walked round and to the side of her and she looked asleep but you could tell she was gone.” It’s unclear as to what happened to Helen and what her cause of death was, pending an autopsy.

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Family, friends, and students are paying tribute to Helen after hearing of her death.

Helen entered the public eye in 2000 after competing in the Summer Olympics. She represented Great Britain and came in 15th in the women’s 200-meter backstroke. While she didn’t place in the Top 3 during the Olympics, she earned silver medals at the 1998 and 1999 European and World Championships, respectively.

After retiring from swimming, Helen became the headteacher of Worsley Mesnes Community Primary School in Wigan near Manchester, England. The school’s Chair of Governors, Alison Halliwell, first shared the news on their Facebook page: “It is with great sadness and regret that I have to announce the sudden death of our beloved Headteacher, Mrs. Helen Smart,” they wrote.

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“Our heartfelt 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.”

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Helen’s husband, Craig, commented on the post with his own memories and tribute: “She loved the school, staff, children, and parents so much,” he wrote. “She was so proud to reach her goal of being Head Teacher. She used to say to me all the time she could never see herself at another school.

“She was Worsley Mesnes through and through! 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!”

Our condolences go out to Helen’s friends, family, students, and colleagues.

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