Training for the Olympics was like the Hunger Games without the death

Olympic double sculls champion Katherine Grainger reflects on her long struggle to succeed at the highest level

Katherine Grainger, who has taken 2013 ‘off’ to complete her PhD and autobiography. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos/ Antonio Olmos

When rower Katherine Grainger won Olympic gold last summer, it was one of the most emotional moments of the Games.

After three consecutive Olympic silvers, she wondered if victory would again elude her. In 2008, she had broken down in tears on the Beijing podium, declaring herself “always the bridesmaid”. But in front of the home crowd, she and Anna Watkins rowed to glory in the women’s double sculls, making Grainger the most successful oarswoman in British Olympic history.

She has taken 2013 off to complete her PhD in criminal law at King’s College University and write her autobiography, Dreams Do Come True. She refused a ghost writer. If anything, she wants to show that Olympians are “very lovely, genuine normal people, who do extraordinary things”.

In person, Grainger is warm and engaged. Her alter ego – “the person who lives on the water” – is forensically focused. But she’s fascinated by what makes people tick and talks enthusiastically about meeting Madeleine Albright (former US secretary of state) and PD James – “people from different creative worlds”.

The daughter of Glasgow teachers, she was sporty but it was only when she went to Edinburgh University that a student pounced on her at freshers’ week, declaring her 6ft build perfect for rowing.

It helped, she says, that she’d already done her share of partying. “I tried masses of things before I got hooked by rowing.”

The book documents the challenge of being a world-class athlete. From 7.30am to 4.30pm, she concentrated on reaching peak condition. She was constantly competing with teammates for a place on the Olympic squad. She jokes that it is like The Hunger Games “without the death”.

She is honest about the fallings-out, injury, brutal coaches. “It’s easy to go, ‘Wasn’t it great? Didn’t we all get on?’ But all that conflict and rubbing against each other brought out the best in people.”

Even her relationship with Watkins was strained, because the media focused on Grainger’s fairytale win and virtually ignored her English rowing partner. It taught her how alienating celebrity can be. But they came through it. The book is testament to friendship. Grainger ruefully admits she’s not good at romance, but rowing brought her lifelong companions she can call at 2am.

At training camp, she and the team became obsessed by The Killing(Sarah Lund is their role model) and virtually set up their own incident room to solve the crime. But then her PhD was on homicide – and psychopaths.

She says it has given her an appreciation of how people are pushed to extremes of behaviour. “You learn people are motivated differently. When you’re young and inexperienced and you clash, you’re like someone from a different planet. ‘They don’t see my point of view’. But it takes time and experience to understand what they’re saying makes utter sense to them.”

Watkins is about to have a baby. Grainger needs to decide if she will defend her title at Rio in 2016, aged 40. Any alternative to rowing has to “stoke the fires”. But she’s missed the camaraderie and the box sets. “I’m getting texts from the girls saying, ‘We’re into Game of Thrones‘. I’m really jealous!”

Article Liz Hoggard

The Observer

Sunday 11th August 2013