Just when she thought she was out, rowing pulled her back in. But where does Katherine Grainger go next?
Rowing is tough on the hands. The constant motion of the oars against the palms and fingers causes them to dry and crack. Eventually the skin toughens up – some choose to accelerate the process by rubbing white spirit on it – and forms calluses to protect against the hours, days and months of hard practice.
But, if you take two years out of the sport, as Katherine Grainger did after winning gold at London 2012, the skin softens up, and you have to go through the whole process again. “It’s horrible,” she tells us. “And the thing is, you just have to keep going.
“You go through this horrible phase where your hands are genuinely raw and bleeding, and the top bit of skin has all come off, and your blisters haven’t come back yet, haven’t hardened, and yet you’re still going to be using them two or three times a day. There’s just no way round it.”
That was just one of the hardships Grainger had to endure when she resumed her rowing career for a crack at Rio. Now 40, she had spent the two years after London studying for a PhD in homicide and writing her autobiography. Many were surprised to see her back in a boat.
The next passion
At London, Grainger fulfilled the longheld ambition of winning gold after many agonising near misses (she took silver in Sydney, Athens and Beijing). She was well aware that nothing could match the highs of a home victory.
So, why come back?
“Good question!” she laughs. “I think part of me wanted to find something else – find the next passion, the next excitement that would take me away from rowing, and I didn’t find it in the two years.
“I think while I knew I still had the choice and I could go back and I could do another Olympics and I could get another medal… of all the things I could have done, it was the one that excited me the most, and drew me back.”
It did not go smoothly – there were coaching disputes, a fall-out with her partner Vicky Thornley, and a failed attempt to qualify for the women’s eight that left her without a place just two months before the Games. But, alongside Thornley, Grainger won silver in the double sculls to become Great Britain’s most decorated female Olympian, with four silvers and one gold.
She considers second place in Rio one of the biggest achievements of her career.
“It wasn’t a smooth or easy build-up,” Grainger explains. “There was a lot of doubt over whether everything would be possible. I remember at some point I thought: ‘I don’t know if we’re going to get through this.’ I was thinking: ‘If there’s any result that comes from this, then it will be without a doubt one of the biggest achievements I’ve done.”
Trial and error
At university, the sport-loving girl from Glasgow found her calling in rowing, and it gave her a home for the next 20 years.
“I wasn’t good at it to begin with,” Grainger admits. “I was fine at the novice level, but when it got to a higher level I really wasn’t very good. It took a lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of trial and error and sticking at it.
“I suppose if there’s anything to leave behind, it’s just one small thing: it’s worth trying and failing and attempting and trying again, and finding something you love. And when you find something you love, just see how far that will take you. I should listen to my own advice!”
Elite rowing is deeply regimented – a single track with one goal in mind, and a tightly prescribed training programme to get there. “Everyone is obviously very intelligent and thinks for themselves,” says Grainger. “But at the same time you are given what training you’ll do, where to do it, when to do it and how to do it.”
Now Grainger faces the explosion of options that come with retirement.
“Nothing really replaces the world that we’ve had, and there’s nothing that could or should,” she says. “But you still have a very long – and healthy and hopefully successful – life ahead of you.”
She is better set up than some retiring athletes, with a law degree and that PhD to fall back on. When she was younger, she thought about becoming Detective Grainger, but admits she is unlikely to go down that route at this point.
“The hard thing now becomes almost having too much choice. Where do you start? It’s probably like when people first go to university. It’s a healthy thing to have to stop and go: ‘Who am I now? What am I good at and what do I want to do next? Where do I create the next me?’”
Whatever she decides to do, Grainger’s future is in her own hands.
Article care of Sport Magazine www.sport-magazine.co.uk (written by Amit Katwala)