South Yorkshire athletics golden girl’s death ‘unexplained’

Donna Hartley-Wass in early 2013.
Donna Hartley-Wass in early 2013.
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Olympic star Donna Hartley-Wass died mysteriously while sunbathing in her back garden, an inquest heard.

The former ‘golden girl’ of British athletics had been suffering from high blood pressure and an irregular heart rhythm for which she was taking prescribed medication.

Although a pathologist said as an elite athlete her heart had been ‘worked harder than most’ he could not ascertain the cause of her death.

Donna, aged 58, a dedicated sun worshipper, was found lying on a sun lounger by her husband, comedian and actor Bobby Knutt.

He said in a statement she had been to work as a fitness instructor at a local gym, then saw a physiotherapist for back pain before she began relaxing with a glass of wine.

He said: “We went into the garden to enjoy the sunshine and she was just wearing bikini bottoms. She went on the sun lounger to do her back face down.

“I went inside to watch a DVD then came back out to talk to her but she appeared to be sleepy so I thought better of it and left her.

“I went back in to watch some more DVDs then went outside again to see if she wanted some suntan lotion rubbing on her back.

“She was still in the same position face down with her head resting on her arms but her face had turned purple and she looked like she had died.”

He phoned for an ambulance to their home at Elsecar, near Barnsley, but she could not be resuscitated.

He went on: “She was fit and did not take drugs and would only have a couple of glasses of wine. I’m shocked. It was completely unexpected.”

Donna won two Commonwealth gold medals in Edmonton, Canada, in 1978 and was awarded the MBE in 1979 before winning a bronze in the 4x400 metre relay in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Pathologist Dr Charles Wilson said Donna had been suffering from hypertension and an abnormal heart rhythm for which she was taking tablets to lower her blood pressure and prevent complications.

He dadded: “Because she was an athlete her heart would have done an awful lot more work than the average person’s heart.

“I don’t know whether this caused heart failure. I couldn’t see anything which suggests that to be the cause. We have a previously healthy lady who has died suddenly.”

Dr Wilson said it was possible the electrical activity of the heart was interrupted causing an irregular heart beat which led to death or there were several natural possible causes.

The coroner recording a conclusion of death from natural causes and added: “It was a completely natural event however unexpected.”