One morning this week, down at the Great Britain rowing team’s lake in Caversham, was a sight nobody expected to see in the sport. There, in low autumnal sun, lifting her boat from the water after a strenuous early morning training session and swinging it with accomplished ease on to her shoulder before carrying it back into the boathouse, was Katherine Grainger.
She’s back: Katherine Grainger has set her sights on glory in Rio after winning gold at London 2012 Photo: WARREN ALLOTT
That’s Katherine Grainger, the woman who we all assumed had retired in the golden after-glow of the London Olympics; the woman last seen in public seemingly embarking on a new career working for the BBC at the Commonwealth Games; a woman, moreover, who, at 39 years of age, apparently knew better. Yet here she is, back in the relentless slog of training, her hands already covered in callouses, hoping to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
As it turns out she is not rowing’s equivalent of the heavyweight boxer who comes back once too often. The truth is, no matter what it looked like, Grainger never officially retired from competition. It was just, well, she has been a bit busy with other things over the past two years and she wanted some time off.
“I hadn’t done a Redgrave,” she says, of Sir Steve’s infamous “if anyone sees me in a boat again they have my permission to shoot me” short-lived retirement announcement in Atlanta in 1996. “I’d had the most positive experience imaginable in London. It didn’t make me feel I never want to go through that again. Never felt that for a moment. It was more a case that after the Games it was really busy, the parades, the dinners, the legacy. You wanted to spread the word, show the medal, inspire people. There was no time for training. Actually there wasn’t much time for thinking or eating. So much was going on. That went on far longer than I expected.”
In her time off she did, she says, several things she had long wanted to do, not least finishing her phd thesis in human rights law. Plus she was appointed Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, a responsibility she intends to take very seriously.
“Suddenly,” she adds, “a year went by, I felt I wasn’t ready to go back to it. So I took another year out. People told me I’d retired, but I was still on the fence. I hadn’t made a final decision.” After working as a reporter at the Commonwealth Games, she says she was “almost sure” she had finished with the rigours of competition. But then, at the end of the summer, she changed her mind.
“I realised the work I did in Glasgow, wonderful as it was, was only going to come round every couple of years.” She had remained in contact with Paul Thompson, the GB Women’s Team coach and the day came when they agreed she would again take to the water, with the aim of making it to Rio. This was not, she insists, a decision that was easily made. There was plenty of internal debate.
“I wanted to make it as hard as possible. I struggled with it. I trained as a lawyer, so I can argue. And I argued endlessly with myself, every angle. Whenever I talked myself in one direction, I’d talk myself back. I didn’t want to come back because I hadn’t found anything else, or I needed the adrenalin kick. I wanted to come back because I wanted to come back. Plus I thought, whatever I choose to do next – the law, the media, academic life, whatever – it can wait another two years.” So at the beginning of this month, Grainger returned to training. And found immediately that two years out of the sport had taken a physical toll.
“I’d slipped way off the level I need to be at,” she says. “And you’d hope I had. Otherwise what’s the point of six days a week intensive training if someone can do nothing for two years and return at the same level?” Although she says progress back to base fitness has been relatively quick (after all, she says, the body must remember something of 15 years of full-time training) she remains at the back of a very competitive pack of young women rowers, all of whom have an eye on the position she once occupied.
To play catch up she has been obliged to throw herself into a grind of weights and endless sessions on the rowing machines that she herself describes as “routine, monotonous, repetitive”. Yet she says she has surprised herself that she has come back “as hungry as ever”.
“In rowing there’s no way they’ll just give me a seat in boat,” she says. “There’s no sentiment in this sport. Never mind what I did in the past, absolutely I have to earn it. It has to be hard. But I’m optimistic I can get back. And oddly I appreciate it more. You realise what a privilege it is. What a thing to do, aiming for the Olympics, what a cool job that is to have.”
Golden girls: Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins on the podium at London 2012
And she has found she is loving being back, being part of the process once more, mixing with her fellow rowers.
“It’s amazing given how straightforward and uncomplicated the sport is how remarkably intelligent some of the people in it are,” she says. “And I think because everyone is so single minded, they have very strong opinions on everything. In the crew room the conversation ranges from Syria to I’m A Celebrity to the weather. It’s exciting talking with these people. Coming back into it again is so refreshing. The truth is when I do eventually retire – and I know I can’t go on beyond Rio – I will leave this sport as a much wiser person.”
On Monday she will swap Caversham for winter training camp in Majorca. As she cycles across the hills and hunkers down over her rowing machine, she will be wearing once more the GB team kit.
“No, it can’t be symbolic, it’s got to be a personal decision, what’s right for me,” she says. “Really, it was a case that I didn’t feel I’d finished.” Which is odd, as everyone else assumed she had.
The Katherine Grainger narrative was that, after being the three-time silver medallist bridesmaid, in her home games, at the age of 37 she had finally made it, finally accomplished everything she had set out to do. That gold medal she wore with such beaming pride on the podium looked the perfect way to bow out.
“Actually, it was more this sense people around me had that I’d put a full stop on things. You almost go along with that. But in the end I felt I hadn’t done that. And you know, you don’t have to worry about that narrative. There could be another – even better – chapter to come.”
Article thanks to Jim White @ The Telegraph