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Monday, August 9, 1999 Published at 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK


Incredibly brave Helen

"She was never bitter or self-pitying"

BBC sports presenter Rob Bonnet pays tribute to his friend and colleague.

Helen Rollason had many gifts, but one of her most precious was an ability to recognise the wider possibilities of life.

When teaching frustrated her, she broke into broadcasting; when convention and prejudice obstructed her, she became the first woman to present Grandstand; and when cancer attacked her, she quickly recognised its challenges rather than any limitations it might attempt to impose.

So engaging on the screen, with a smile that conveyed the pleasure she took in her work, she was enormously well-liked. That much was clear from the supportive mail that swamped our office once the public knew of her illness, but her friends and colleagues at the BBC were also drawn to her through admiration and respect as they saw more closely what she was going through and how she was handling it.

Determination produces results

Once the shock of diagnosis back in the summer of 1997 had subsided, she set about fighting the illness with the same determination that she'd shown on the set of Grandstand seven years before.

Make no mistake, there were those in 1990 even inside the BBC who tried to undermine her confidence as she sat in the same seat previously occupied by David Coleman and Desmond Lynam.

The male-dominated world of sports broadcasting whispered that she wasn't up to the job and - as a consequence - she was made to feel insecure, but her public popularity alone proved her critics wrong and confirmed to her that determination invariably produces results.

The road to success

The early to mid-nineties produced a whole string of opportunities and successes to follow her work in the eighties on local radio and the children's programme Newsround.

She was given her own programme Friday Grandstand, she became the well-known face of Sports News on National Bulletins and Breakfast News, she achieved a much higher profile for disabled sport as the BBC's main presenter at the Paralympics and her voluntary work away from broadcasting with the Sports Council and charities showed that she could give of herself while taking her chance.

All this was recognised in 1996 when she was named Sports Presenter of the Year, but it's possible that the cancer was taking hold even then as - retrospectively - she remarked that she had been feeling unwell during the Olympics in Atlanta.

Gossip and games

So the early summer months of 1997 were her last without the heavy realities of diagnosis. We went together to Lord's for a sunlight day at the Test Match - bright, sometimes mischievous gossip enlivened another bad session in the field for England - and then a few weeks later we were on opposite sides in a fourball on another sunny afternoon on the golf-course.

Two-thirds of the way through the round and with the scores pretty much level, my competitive streak got the better of me. Helen was considering the borrow of a tricky, two-foot putt, expecting perhaps that I might concede it, but instead I theatrically looked away. Seconds later the ball was rattling the cup ... and an hour later Helen was very much on the winning side.

Never bitter or self-pitying

With hindsight of course, I now know that she was suffering from bowel cancer at the time, and that the signs had been there in the relative slowness of her progress around the course and her fatigue afterwards.

The real sadness was that the disease had not been not caught in its early stages but she was never bitter or self-pitying and instead faced each development in her illness as it presented itself.

Often it was a question of dealing with a new setback, but there were also remarkable improvements which caused the dedicated medical staff around her truly to wonder at her resilience.

She told me over lunch this spring about a theory of one of her doctors. It suggested that positive thinking - the very "can-do" attitude that Helen brought to her fight against cancer - somehow released a chemical into the system that made a very real impact on the disease and its progress.

If ever there was "mind-over-matter", this was it ... as effective perhaps as anything else while science strives for more conventional cures. And it was not passed on in a spirit of vanity_it simply reflected her immense appetite for the knowledge that might help her fight.

Courageous and inspirational

The occasion was the last time I saw Helen in good form. More recently, as the disease took its terminal grip, she suffered with incredible bravery.

She denied that she was brave. She said she was no different from the thousands of others who daily were suffering in the same way but it surely took a special kind of courage to confront the disease so head-on and in such a public way.

Viewers would never have guessed it but she was in enormous distress during her last broadcast for the Six O'Clock News in mid-June.

By then, the target that she had put above all others was being met she supported her daughter Nikki up to and beyond her GCSEs and she'd also, of course, been honoured by the Queen.

Helen Rollason MBE left her hospital bed only four days before going to Buckingham Palace to receive her award.

Her horizons were now daily rather than weekly or monthly and she focussed determinedly on attending this full public recognition of her work as a broadcaster and of her services to charity.

But all who knew her, either as occasional viewer or personal friend, believe that she deserved it above all for her courage and spirit. Three days later - in mid-July - she celebrated Nikki's 16th birthday, another personal milestone.

Only Nikki will remember her with the love of a daughter for her mother but others - even those who only knew her via the TV screen - will recall her warmth with fondness and her dignity with respect.

Hope for Helen - a TV documentary that followed her through much of her life in 1998 - was a clear reflection of all that was inspirational about her. It was straightforward, honest, positive and it made a difference. And so did she.

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