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Tuesday, August 10, 1999 Published at 07:15 GMT 08:15 UK


Helen Rollason: Presenter with fighting spirit

Helen always maintained a positive attitude

The first first female presenter of the BBC sports programme Grandstand, Helen Rollason, has died after a long battle with cancer.

When Helen Rollason became the first woman to present BBC Television's flagship sports programme Grandstand, she was defying those who, even in 1990, believed the programme would not be taken seriously with a female host.

The BBC's Peter Sissons looks back at the life of Helen Rollason
It was an example of her determination, a quality that stayed with her right to the end.

A self-confessed "sports nut", Helen Rollason, an adopted child was born on 11 March 1956. She went to a physical education college and taught PE for three years before moving to Essex radio in 1980 where she became deputy sports editor.

[ image: Rollason became a familiar face as a presenter on Newsround]
Rollason became a familiar face as a presenter on Newsround
Later she worked as a freelance TV sports producer and presenter. At 24 she married John, a biology teacher and they had a daughter Nikki. But the marriage did not last.

She became well-known to young people in Britain when she presented the children's BBC news programme Newsround. With her great energy and enthusiasm she proved herself a natural communicator.

Regular slot on sport

Helen moved to BBC Sport in 1990 and her ability in the Grandstand studio was rewarded with a regular slot on Sport on Friday. Her presenting credits include the Wimbledon Tennis Championships the Summer Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996, as well as the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada.

[ image: In 1990, she became the first female presenter of Grandstand]
In 1990, she became the first female presenter of Grandstand
She was also involved in ground-breaking projects with disabled athletes. In 1996 she was named as Sports Presenter of the Year.

But in August 1997, while she was presenting the sports slot on BBC Breakfast News, she complained of acute tiredness and discomfort.

She was diagnosed as having colon cancer, and the disease had spread to her liver. One of her doctors gave her four months to live.

Friend and colleague James Pearce with a personal report
Despite this shattering blow, Helen Rollason refused to accept her fate passively and immersed herself in work.

Although bouts of chemotherapy robbed her of her hair and energy, she rarely missed a day's work.

A BBC camera followed her around in 1998 and the resultant programme, Hope for Helen, showed her undergoing intensive medical treatment. She maintained a positive attitude in the face of increasingly bad news. "I want to live so badly," she said.

Charity work

[ image: She accepted the challenge of presenting the sport on the BBC's Six O'clock News]
She accepted the challenge of presenting the sport on the BBC's Six O'clock News
By now she had become heavily involved in charity work. She helped raise more than £5 million to set up a cancer wing at the North Middlesex hospital. It will be named after her.

When, in May 1999, the BBC asked her to present the Friday sports section of the revamped Six O'Clock News, she accepted the challenge despite the cancer having now spread to her lungs.

There were bad days when the physical pain would become overwhelming. But there were good days too, none more so than when she was awarded an MBE in the Queen's birthday honours.

"I cried when I received the news," she said. "I don't feel I deserve it but I'm very thrilled that so many women are coming through in sports broadcasting now."

[ image: Seeing her daughter Nikki through her exams became one of Helen's main aims]
Seeing her daughter Nikki through her exams became one of Helen's main aims
The MBE recognised her services to broadcasting and charity but the public's perception was that her spirit in the face of a fatal disease was also being rewarded.

She had set herself a number of targets, and she met the one that meant most to her; helping her daughter Nikki during her GCSE examinations.

As a result of the media publicity generated by the programme Hope for Helen she gained widespread public sympathy. She once described how she and Nikki spent the day shopping near her home.

Bob Wilson: "Helen was a true sports fan"
"We couldn't walk for people coming up to us," she said. She told her daughter to "cherish this moment".

"When you get older, if ever you get cynical, look back and remember how people cared. I've seen how much my friends love me. I'm very lucky because most women don't know that in all their lives, do they?"

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