Katherine Grainger admits this has been the toughest year of her career. It’s quite a statement from someone who has been at the top end of world rowing for almost two decades, but the fact the 40-year-old will be in Rio says much for her determination.
Grainger’s story has been written into the annals of British sporting history; three consecutive Olympic silver medals before the Glaswegian finally, and gloriously, got her hands on that elusive gold. Her victory in the double sculls alongside Anna Watkins was one of the highlights of London 2012, and with Grainger taking an extended break from the sport after that win, many assumed she had put away her oars for good.
Not so. In late 2014, Grainger announced a comeback. She was paired with Vicky Thornley, a finalist in the women’s eight at London 2012, but after failing to win a medal at this year’s European Championships, the pairing was disbanded with both Grainger and Thornley being given the chance to compete for a place in the eight.
Grainger would be hit by another setback. Neither she, nor Thornley, won a seat in the eight and so they resurrected their double sculls partnership. The uncertainty continued; Grainger and her Welsh crew mate were not named in the first wave of selections for Rio, but were eventually granted a late reprieve, with selection confirmed last month.
It has, concedes Grainger, not been easy to deal with so much disruption.
“This year has probably been the most challenging of my career,” she says. “This Olympic build-up has been very different to four years ago. When I was in the boat with Anna, we were unbeaten, so there was a huge pressure on us but we had a lot of confidence because of the success we’d had.
“This time, there’s been more obstacles on the journey but in a way, that gives me even more motivation to get something out of this year. I’ve been challenged in a way I didn’t expect to be and haven’t been before. Although it’s not been easy, I’ll look back on these past couple of years and know I’ve benefited from them.”
There were times when it seemed like Grainger was not going to have her dream comeback. Particularly when she missed out on selection for the eight, it looked to many that Grainger may not be in Rio at all, never mind contending for a medal. She admits there were times when she had to remind herself not to panic, but the self-belief that all champions have seldom wavered.
“I always thought it would work out, I just couldn’t see how,” she says. “I don’t think I ever stopped believing that I would find the answers, I just couldn’t see them at some points. There were dark days when I really struggled to find the solutions and those were the most challenging days, but they were pretty few and far between.
“I think there is a determination or a resilience or something innate within me and other athletes who have longevity that keeps you going forward even when the knocks come. I’ve always liked a challenge. It was a massive privilege going in four years ago as favourites for Olympic gold, but now I’m on the other end of the spectrum. This time, we’re going out there to do something that a lot of people don’t believe is possible, so that’s always an incentive.”
When Grainger returned to the sport two years ago, she knew that if the hunger had gone, she would not make it to Rio. But it was, and she travels to Rio knowing that if she returns with a medal, she will become Britain’s most decorated female Olympian.
Her and Thornley’s results this season suggest a medal is a long shot, but Grainger has not become a four-time Olympic medallist and six-time world champion without possessing that exceptional desire to come out on top.
“We’ve not defined what result would be considered a success,” she says. “But from my very first international race, I’ve always believed it’s possible to win. Nobody has their name on any of those Rio medals yet and absolutely, we’re going out there to try to win that race. But even when we get to Rio, we’ll very much be taking it one day at a time and one race at a time.”
Grainger may be an old hand at the Olympic experience but the excitement about representing Team GB remains undimmed. While she refuses to make any declarations about retirement, she does admit that, more than likely, Rio will be her final Olympic outing.
“The Olympics is by far the biggest thing you can be part of as an athlete, so I don’t think it matters if it’s your first Games or your 10th, it’s always so special and so exciting,” she says. “I’m not making any decisions about my future just yet but I would say I’d be very surprised if I turned up again in Olympic kit after Rio.”
Article care of Susan Egelstaff, Sports Columnist, Scottish Herald