After gold in 2012, the rower, training with partner Anna Watkins, is now running the London Marathon and thinking of the future.
It can’t be an easy decision for Katherine Grainger. Return to rowing or retire for good? The 38-year-old has enjoyed a two-year break from the sport since finally clinching that elusive Olympic gold medal with Anna Watkins in London, occupied with completing a PhD in homicide last year, and preparing to run the London Marathon. But if she is to give herself any chance of being competitive in Rio 2016, the cut-off point is looming.
“My deadline I set was September last year, so that’s gone well,” she says with a laugh. “I need to know myself by the summer what I’m doing. Either way. If I go back that’s a big adjustment, or if I retire that would be the first time I genuinely step out.” British Rowing would surely welcome Britain’s most successful ever female rower back with open arms come the new season in September, “but I can’t just come back having done nothing for two years, I need to be able to walk through the door and physically match everyone else,” she says.
“I’ve never taken time out before so to miss two years is actually a big chunk out of that preparation. If I want to be in that team I will need to decide as soon as that summer season is over, whether I want to come back or whether I’m not in it at all. That’s absolutely decision time.”
In a career that has spanned more than two decades, Grainger has never had such an extended break away from the sport. By the time her former British team-mates have competed at the rowing world championships in August, she will have just two years left to prepare to defend her Olympic title. The Scot admits that the practicalities of how long it will take to regain her elite fitness is a complete unknown. “Although I’ve rowed for my whole adult life, [coming back to it is] something I don’t underestimate, you take it for granted what you can do at the time but it’s actually a big step up from normal life.”
On Sunday morning Grainger will get a timely reminder of a gruelling race as she attempts to run the London Marathon to raise funds forInternational Inspiration, a charity established to provide a global legacy for London 2012. A board member for the charity, Grainger speaks passionately about its work using sport to transform lives – from teaching Bangladeshi communities to swim in a country where drowning in floods is a common occurrence, to using football to educate communities about domestic violence and gender discrimination.
Training alongside her is her London 2012 rowing partner Watkins, who became a mother six months ago. As they pound the Thames towpaths together, is there any talk of reuniting one final time in Rio? “We did say that if we were both going to commit to another Olympics we would want to do it together, but the reality is that life takes you in other directions and Anna at the moment is saying the priority is her family, and rightly so. She’s not going to make any commitments at all.”
Grainger pauses, before admitting that they do still talk about the “magic” of London 2012 – “We felt so lucky to be in a great combination that was fast, it was fun and we felt like anything was possible when we were in the boat. We know that not every boat is like that, not every boat has that magic to it. The lovely thing is that we had that moment in the boat together that will be our moment for ever.”
But the effects of transferring from a sitting to a standing sport are taking their toll. “Because we’re not going that fast, compared to our normal training it’s not lung burning, like when we’re flat-out racing we’re gasping for breath and our respiratory system is on the brink and struggling to make it. Where we struggle is the hours and hours of pounding on the muscles and joints. That’s what slows us down and is the limiting factor. It’s the first time we’ve experienced long periods of impact in that way.”
Inevitably, with rowing the biggest recipient of sports funding in the next Olympic cycle with £32.62m, Grainger is frequently drawn into the debate about whether it is fair that her sport should be so highly remunerated while a sport such as basketball will not receive a penny at the elite level.
Grainger audibly bristles at the comparison. Rowing – the sport of privilege – versus basketball played in inner cities. “It’s frustrating when you read anything that portrays sport turning against sport,” she sighs. “Generally most sports are inclusive … and rowers are actually normal people too.”
Grainger is an advocate of UK Sport’s funding system, having seen it transform rowing – “when I joined women rowers were having to row part time, hold down full-time jobs and often had massive debts,” but acknowledges that after 20 years it may be time to reassess where the priorities lie in how elite sport is funded. “From the very beginning the money was always based on performance. You always had to prove yourself, and it was looked at every year and adjusted every year.
“[Either we continue that way] Or else you decide that you’re going to focus on participation and numbers and then that’s a whole different situation. You can argue you should be rewarded for getting more numbers and more schools involved, but that’s not where we are at the moment. If that’s the road we want to go down then the whole thing should be reviewed and realigned. But the criticisms coming now are slightly unfair in that that’s just not the way the system is. We need to decide what our goals are. Is it the medals? Or is the participation levels? We’re spending more money on sport in this country than ever so surely it would be great to achieve both those goals, rather than one or the other.”
She believes one of the biggest issues is all too frequently misrepresented. That it is not a question of privileged versus underprivileged, rather individual sports versus team sports. She has a point. While athletics will have 47 medal opportunities in Rio 2016 – swimming has 34, cycling 18 and rowing 14 – football, rugby and basketball have just two medal chances apiece.
“Team sports have a disadvantage full stop,” she says, “there’s less opportunities. And, if you were a fantastic basketball player on a team that couldn’t get on to the podium, you will miss out on funding. And that’s where the problems come.” She also wants governing bodies to look at where gaps may be forming between grassroots-funded athletes – catered for by Sport England – and elite-funded athletes under UK Sport’s remit.
“Because they’re run as separate bodies [we need to make sure] there’s a natural flow between them so that an athlete would be able to make a seamless transition. If you get to the top of Sport England funding but you can’t get on to the bottom rung of UK Sport funding … you’ve progressed at the system to the top, but then you miss out because there isn’t a step to the next one.”
In the meantime Grainger will focus on commentating – though that won’t include the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow where rowing has not officially been on the programme since 1984. “Which is when Steve [Redgrave] competed. He still calls himself the reigning Commonwealth Games champion … because he is the most competitive man you’ll ever meet,” she laughs.
Of course, if Grainger does return to rowing, a medal at her fifth Games would be only one short of Redgrave’s tally of Olympic medal-winning appearances. The dilemma is whether to leave London 2012 as a fitting and perfect way to end a career, or try to recapture that feeling.
“When you’ve had a great time that you’ve enjoyed it’s very hard to walk away from it. But I’m also very realistic about the commitment it takes. It’s always to the exclusion of everything else. And that’s the amazing world I’ve been in the last two years of going to new places and meeting new people and broadening my horizons. In effect if you want to be a success at the Olympic Games you need to close your horizons and bring the focus back.
“A lot of people have openly said we’ll never be able to beat that moment. But I would never want to beat it. If I were to go back it wouldn’t be to try and do better than London, that moment will be the highlight of my rowing career forever. It’s almost its own separate entity, a little bit of wonder. But it doesn’t mean you don’t want to do anything after that. You still have that drive and want to improve.”
It sounds as though Grainger has already talked herself into it. So watch out Rio 2016.
Article courtesy of the Guardian