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Champion swimmer, renowned artist and cherished mum

15 March 2024

Helen, aged 93 of IRT Thomas Holt Kirrawee, is one gutsy woman according to her daughter Lee.

“Mum used to snow ski, surf, swim, run and bike ride. She would compete in ocean swims, triathlons and marathons. She was so gutsy, Mum. She really was,” Lee said.

Helen is now living with dementia and struggles to recall all the amazing things she has achieved in her lifetime but her daughter explains she was a woman of great athleticism.

“She was incredibly fit. She used to run sand hills at 6am every morning before going swimming,” Lee said.

Helen was born in 1931 at a time when women were excluded from large parts of public and political life in Australia. Women were not allowed to stand for Federal election, drink in public bars or work in the public service once married. But this didn’t stop her from leading a life of achievement.

By the 1980s Helen was among the first number of women admitted into the Cronulla RSL Swimming Club, which up until that time had been exclusive to men. She was quickly recognised as a valuable member of the Club by winning her 50 – 59 age event in record time in her first attempt at the AIF Swimming Championship. (AIF stands for Australian Imperial Force and the swimming championships are held by the AIF Swimming Association which was formed in the years following WWI.)

Lee says her mum Helen was also a prolific ocean swimmer and swimming squad coach.

“Mum joined the nationals swim team and went on to enter ocean swims all over Australia, winning her age group every time. I did all the swims with her.

“Mum and I have done the Cronulla Shark Island Swim multiple times. I would come first in my age group and Mum would come first in hers. We did the Byron Bay Swim a couple of times, we did the Bondi, the Harbour swim and the Wedding Cake Island Swim. We’ve swum all over the place,” Lee said.

Lee and her mum Helen still hold a world record with ten other team mates for completing a 24 hour swim at the Cronulla Swim Complex in 1992.

Not restricted to water-based activity, Helen also became a well-known artist; painting many murals in homes on the North Shore and Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.

“It was an unusual upbringing for me, I used to go into all of the art galleries with Mum and go to all the (art) jobs with her when I was younger. She was a fabulous artist, so creative,” Lee said.

Lee says her mum was a very diverse artist. Beyond murals Helen painted portraits, animals, landscapes, streetscapes, clothing, bedspreads, and stained glass in churches. She attended the Julian Ashton Art School and taught art at Rose Bay Convent.

Lee treasures the many happy memories she built with her mum.

“We built these memories together. We were best friends and it’s so hard now.

“They look after her so well at IRT. I’ve got a very good relationship with all of the staff there and they fill me in all of the time about how she’s going.

“Mum had a wonderful personality, a great sense of humour, she was beautiful,” Lee said.



Media enquiries: Hannah Ellson 0429 361 627 |

General enquiries: 134 478

About IRT Group:
IRT Group is one of Australia’s largest community-owned, not-for-profit providers of retirement living, residential aged care and home care. With more than 50 years’ experience and locations throughout NSW, the ACT and South East Queensland, we employ more than 2000 people and play a significant role in promoting seniors as dynamic, influential and valuable members of society.

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