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Royal Holloway′s golden girl sets a shining example

Posted on 19/02/2010

Picture by Tom Shore: Helene Raynsford with the sabbatical team

You can’t help but be inspired by Helene Raynsford. Hers is a story of true dedication, courage and perseverance and on Thursday night she captivated an audience at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Helene is a woman who has grabbed life by the horns and has come back fighting no matter what is thrown at her.

As a child she attended the Royal Ballet School, but at 17 her promising career as a dancer came to an end after an injury.
She then turned her efforts to studying Medical Biochemistry at Royal Holloway. But five weeks before the start of her final year she suffered a brain injury which left her paralysed from the waist down. But she defied the odds and came back fighting. She was able to continue with her studies and graduated in 2003. She says she owes a lot to Royal Holloway, “If we had listened to the medical advice I wouldn’t be here today, living an independent life. Everyone at Royal Holloway rallied around me and I am very grateful for all the support I have received.”

As part of her rehabilitation, Helene took up sport and through it made a recovery not thought possible. She became a member of the British Women’s wheelchair basketball team and won two silver medals in the Paralympic world cup.

In 2005 she set her sights on rowing – but her introduction to the sport came quite accidently. Whilst at a work engagement at Dorney Lake a friend dragged her to watch the rowing. There she saw a man in a wheelchair with a team GB sweatshirt on prompting her to ask, “How do you row when you’re in a wheelchair?” It was in answering this question that she discovered rowing and all it had to offer. “I was taken by the buzz and vibe almost instantly,” she said.

Something you learn quite quickly about Helene is that she aims high and always strives to be the best at anything she does - and rowing is no different.

Through her sheer hard work she went from paddling 200 metres down a river in a boat to being part of the first ever GB Paralympic rowing team on her way to the Beijing Olympics.

She said the support she received was incredible. The opening ceremony however was not all it was cracked up to be as the athletes didn’t actually get to take part but watched it on television like the rest of us.

Talking us through the finals day she said it was very different to anything she had experienced. When she got to her boat one of the pins was sticking up interfering with the blade. But when someone tried to tighten it, the pin snapped. The race had to be delayed while her coach fixed the problem and made sure it would not come off halfway down the course. “There’s a deathly silence as you are waiting for the lights to turn green. By the time I got to 250 metres I was starting to feel woozy and I was desperately trying to keep my focus. All I could see was a lot of bright lights and I was feeling particularly unwell.”

Despite this, she won the race and made history by becoming the first ever woman to win an Olympic gold medal in rowing for Great Britain. “The medal ceremony and national anthem is supposed to be the best part but for me it was pretty dire because I felt so unwell and kept throwing up. But going to Beijing was my dream and winning gold was a dream come true,” she said.

Soon afterwards she was diagnosed with a heart condition and had to suspend her training to give her body a break.

Not one for taking it easy, Helene, who was made an Honorary Fellow of the College in 2009 in recognition of her outstanding achievements, is now studying an MSc in Human Neuroscience and has since started her training again.

To all those with a dream she says, “Never give up. If you have a dream, break it up into smaller manageable parts, and utilise everyone around you.”

She concluded her talk with her current mantra: “How am I going to live today in order to create the tomorrow I’m committed to?” And it is this question that she hopes will see her through to the London Olympic Games in 2012.


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