Helene Raynsford, a former member of the British wheelchair basketball team, became the first ever Paralympic rowing gold medallist by winning the women’s single sculls event at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games where rowing made its Paralympic debut.

Helene Raynsford, Paralympic rower competing at the Beijing 2008 Games

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Early Life

Helene was born on the 29th of December 1979 and from an early age she enjoyed dancing. She started studying at the Royal Ballet School at the age of eleven, but a foot injury prevented her developing a career in ballet.

After finishing school, she completed a degree in Medical Biochemistry at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2003 and, in 2011, a Masters in Human Neuroscience. 

In 2001, aged 21, Helene suffered a severe head injury that left her without use of her legs.

As part of her rehabilitation journey, she soon got back into sports. Before taking up rowing, she was a member of the British wheelchair basketball team from 2003 to 2006, winning two World Cup silver medals.

While working at Dorney Lake for the Department of Health in 2005, watching the Rowing World Cup event inspired Helene to try out rowing and after just a few months in the sport she competed in the National Championships. 

In 2006 she rowed a qualifying time that gave her entry to the World Championships. Unfortunately, her preparations were disrupted by a car accident in which she badly bruised her ribs and stomach. Despite the accident, she won her heat in the World Championships and went on to win the final to become single sculls World Champion in the arms-only single sculls.

A year later, at the 2007 World Championships, she finished fifth in the final after suffering an asthma attack on the first day of the competition. Despite the result not being what she had hoped for, it was enough to qualify her for the Beijing 2008 Summer Paralympic Games where rowing was to make its’ Paralympic debut.

Life as a Paralympic athlete

Winning the women’s single sculls at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games by a 12-second margin, Helene became the first ever Paralympic rowing champion.

Helene said of her Paralympic win:

I knew if I could get out of the start as quick as I could and get into the lead I could do it! … I said after the world championships last year that I would come back and win gold in Beijing.

Helene Raynsford, Paralympic rower with her winning medals at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games

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In 2009 Helene was appointed as an Athletes Commission Member to UK Anti-Doping, a role she continued until 2013. Olympic, Paralympic, and professional athletes are represented on the committee to provide advice on all matters relating to anti-doping

Commenting on her appointment, Helene said:

It is an honour to have been selected to sit on this Committee. It is fantastic to be given the opportunity to not only prove my commitment to anti-doping, but also to sit alongside my fellow members in representing the views and concerns of athletes.

In April 2010 Helene announced her retirement from competitive rowing due to a cardiac problem. She returned shortly after, as a change in her treatment had significantly improved her health, and she was chosen to represent Great Britain at the World Championships in New Zealand in November 2010.

Ongoing health issues ultimately forced her to step back from competitive sport completely.


In 2008, Helene told the BBC - The best piece of advice I would pass on is ...

Always challenge people's perceptions and beliefs of what you can do. Straight after my accident they believed I wouldn't be able to go back to living independently, but it was the complete opposite.

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

Helene has held public health management positions, including regional positions, for the Department of Health and local positions for the NHS. In 2012 she was seconded from the NHS to the London 2012 Organising Committee for eight months as Paralympic Rowing Lead on the Sports Management Team.

In 2013 Helene was diagnosed with breast cancer and although the diagnosis came as a shock, she worked hard to continue her day-to-day life as before, still working in public health as well as speaking about her experiences as a Paralympic champion. 

I knew I would deal with my cancer journey the same way I dealt with racing in Beijing. It is just another 1km on a different stretch of water.

Helene joined the British Paralympic Association (BPA) as an Athletes Commission Member in 2013, becoming a Board Observer before taking on the role of Chair. In 2019 she became Non-Executive Director.

From 2014 to 2016 she was Chair of the Board, London Paralympics Legacy Programme, Motivate East and, in September 2016, Chair of the IPC Academy Inclusion Summit Conference in Rio de Janeiro.

Since 2018 she has been a Non-Executive Director with the Sport and Recreation Alliance

Helene is also an Ambassador for the British Inspiration Trust which runs the Brit Challenge, an annual event for further education establishments and the Students Union to participate and unite in support of young adult mental health.

She continues to be very active in sharing her experiences with other young and aspiring athletes.

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

Helene won gold in the Women's Single Sculls AW1x at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, with a time of 6:12.93, some 12 seconds ahead of the silver medal winner.

Other sporting events

Competing at the 2006 Adaptive World Rowing Championships held at Dorney Lake, Helene won the ASW1 event. 

She went on to compete for Great Britain at the World Rowing Championships in 2007 held at Oberschleissheim, Munich and 2010 held at Lake Karapiro, New Zealand.

Other awards and recognition

In 2009, Royal Holloway, University of London, conferred the title of Honorary Fellow on Helene.