World Rowing Book Review

Katherine Grainger’s autobiography, Dreams Do Come True (Andre Deutsch Ltd, 2013) is not only a great read but also a significant addition to the few titles that feature female rowers.

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Katherine Grainger (a) and Anna Watkins (b) of Great Britain compete in the women’s double sculls heat at the 2012 Olympic Rowing Regatta at Eton-Dorney near London, Great Britain. ©2012 Harry How/Getty Images.

However, the real joy in the book is to be found in an affirmation of many of the key values that underpin the sport of rowing: camaraderie, perseverance, teamwork, sacrifice and fun. Although Grainger, from Scotland, has admitted that her first book is much more a ‘rowing,’ than a ‘life’ biography,’ there’s enough emotion, angst and self-discovery here to satisfy most.

Grainger is known for both a quiet determination and an ability to down-play her own talents. Early in 2010, towards the end of an interview, I asked Grainger how she compared herself with the world’s top female rowers particularly Germany’s Kathrin Boron, who was then coming towards the end of an illustrious career. The Scot – who at that time had three Olympic silvers, four world titles and a silver medal in the women’s single sculls gave an uncompromising reply, “With four Olympic Gold medals, she’s in a different class to me.”  Grainger’s natural humility apart, the absence of that Olympic Gold medal from her achievements was a painful one.

Over the next three seasons Grainger, together with Anna Watkins, established themselves as the World’s top double sculls. World titles on the lakes of Karipiro and Bled were followed by an Olympic title in front of a home crowd on London’s Dorney Lake. By that time, Grainger had become an iconic figure in British sport. Her success at the Games gave her the kind of star-status normally reserved for rowers like Steve Redgrave. The British public warmed to her and her story of dedication, determination and commitment. Publishers clamoured for her to write a book. By the middle of 2013 Grainger had completed her autobiography.

In essence the book tells us how the key relationships in her life helped her to express herself and realise her potential. She points to the influence of her karate coach, Ken Davis in her teenage years. It speaks volumes about Grainger’s values that the owner of an Olympic gold medal could write.

“When I got my black belt (in karate), Ken Davis who taught me from white to black gave me his own very first black belt and to this day, it’s still possibly the first thing I would rescue in the event of a house fire.”

Grainger is also revealing about the value and lessons learned from two of the key coaching relationships that have brought her success: initially with Mike Spracklen and subsequently with the Australian, Paul Thompson. Inevitably, amongst the plaudits, there were moments when Grainger felt emotionally stung. While rightly giving credit for Spracklen coaching both her and her quadruple scull to a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics (Great Britain’s first ever women’s Olympic title), she also writes in a heartfelt manner of the challenges of working with the legendary and opinionated coach.

Grainger’s relationship with Thompson lasted much longer. It brought her a first world title in 2003 in the coxless pairs and took her to that crowning success in the London Games. In some ways, the emotional intensity of relationship between these two ‘driven’ characters gives the book its depth.

Grainger felt compelled to tell her story in her own words and we get a strong sense of why being in a crew meant so much to her. Through her relationship in the pair with Cath Bishop, through to that with her doubles partner Anna Watkins, we get a real sense of why Grainger has only spent one season (2009) in the single.

The rawness of her quad’s defeat in the Beijing Olympic final at the hands of China is dealt with sensitively, as is the determination to find a new direction and re-discover the ‘playful’ side of her character in the run-up to London.

We learn that the outcome of a gold medal in London was far from inevitable and we are treated to some of the insights she gained into her own psychology working with the British team’s psychologist. On the way we learn about Grainger’s fascination with criminal psychology – she gained her PhD in 2013. As yet, both she and we don’t know if Grainger will appear in the Rio Games. But after reading this book, nobody would be surprised if the evergreen rower comes back for one more challenge.

Review by Martin Cross and courtesy of worldrowing.com