St Andrews University Honorary Degree

The Saint caught up with Katherine Grainger, Olympic gold medalist rower, after she received her honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of St Andrews.

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Katherine Grainger was described in the graduation address by Professor Neville Richardson, Master of the United College, as “one of the greatest British female athletes and certainly Britain’s greatest female rower of all time” but despite six World Championship medals, three Olympic silver medals, finally securing that Gold medal at London 2012 and honours outside of sport such as the CBE that she was awarded in January 2013, an honorary degree from St Andrews clearly still meant a lot to her.

“I think as a London 2012 athlete, we all felt that all dreams came true last summer so the fact that there are honours that continue afterwards is incredible and it’s no something that you expect. It’s not something that happens automatically. It’s not something that you work for and then get. For some reason, you are chosen for it so it does feel very special,” She said.

She continued: “It was such a lovely ceremony. I think it’s great any time you come to university for graduation because I think there’s that real excitement and planning for the future. It’s a great celebration of degrees gone past and looking forward. To be in the middle of it and to be given an honorary degree is just such a privilege and the University of St Andrews has such an incredible reputation so to come and get the honour from St Andrews is really special.”

Despite becoming a household name as one of Britain’s most successful rowers, it was not her original career plan. She entered the University of Edinburgh in 1993 to study law and only started rowing by chance when she attended a meeting with a friend and was selected because of her suitable build. However, by her third year, at the age of 20, she was rowing for Scotland and by 1997 had won gold at the World under-23 championships as part of the coxless pairs and picked up her the first of her eight World Championship medals as a member of the women’s eight.

She was clearly a talented athlete but she continued with her education with an MPhil in Medial Law and Ethics at the University of Glasgow and she has just completed her PhD in homicide at KCL. She balanced her studies alongside training, competing and a hectic social life, which is something most students would struggle with.

“In my final year at university I went into GB trials, I was finishing off my degree and I was captain of the boat club so I took a lot on but I’ve kept doing it ever since but for me it was what I wanted to do and if you’re really passionate about what you do and you want to do it, you will find ways of making it work. I became great at time management and just became very efficient.”

When I asked what advice she would give to students who are struggling to keep up with academic, sporting and social commitments, she encouraged them to take on as much as possible: “I used to waste hours dead easily but the more you do the more efficient you become in everything you do and for me balance is absolutely vital. I was a better athlete because I still studied, I was a better student because I was rowing. I was better at both of those things because I still enjoyed a social life. For me to balancing the three, the studying, the social life and the sport, made me better at each one of those things.

Her determination to succeed was clear in both her academic life and also in her rowing career. Her story was one of the most inspirational of the 2012 Olympic games. Her first Olympic medal came unexpectedly in Sydney in 2000 as she rowed into silver position as part of the quadruple sculls. Another silver came four years later in Athens followed by World cup wins and World Championship golds. She went into Beijing 2008 as the favourite for Gold as part of the quadruple sculls but was narrowly beaten by the Chinese team. Her disappointment was clear for everyone to see.

Following the devastating defeat, many were not sure if she would carry on but the pull of a home games in London 2012 drew her back and she finally won an Olympic Gold medal in the double sculls with Anna Watkins in front of the home crowd. Scenes from their medal ceremony were amongst the most memorable of the Olympic Games that brought joy and pride to the nation.

Almost a year on from 2012, the Olympic spirit has faded slightly but Katherine explained how we can use the memory of last summer’s sporting achievements, like her own victory, to inspire our young people.

“The spirit that was created last summer was sort of unique, certainly in our life time. I think it is hard because it can never be as powerful as it was at that moment, that has to fade to some extent but I think the inspiration should continue and I think it’s up to all of us to remember what it was like then and what it could be because everyone was happier, everyone was inspired and that’s really important that continues in some way.

“I think as athletes, we all talk to people about it and share that moment and keep that excitement going. Sports clubs and universities have a great opportunity to use it as it’s all very recent and there’s a lot we can do to take that and use the role models. Everyone at the Olympics started somewhere. Everyone was at school and university and overcame things and achieved these great things and all those messages are very powerful. I think that is what we need to hold onto.”

Katherine’s future as a rower is unclear as she has still not decided whether she will compete at Rio 2016. However, she has already accomplished great things in her lifetime both as an athlete and in academia and her determination to succeed is certainly an inspiration to all.

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Article care of The Saint – the independent voice of St Andrews students since 1997