EVEN at the age of 39 years and three days, it was not too late for Katherine Grainger to try something new in her rowing life. Yesterday, alongside a posse of club regulars and young hopefuls, she completed the first major test of her comeback, on the indoor rowing machine. Today, also for the first time, she will compete in a 5km time trial along the River Witham, near Boston, Lincolnshire as she begins the long and painful journey back to GB rowing’s equivalent of square one.
Katherine Grainger has returned to rowing full-time after a two-year break (Photo: Chris Bourchier)
The Olympic champion’s battle will be primarily against the clock, but there will be internal struggle too, between Grainger’s competitive instinct, the one that has driven her to win three Olympic silver medals and, finally, a gold in London, and the simple truth that, after two years away from a boat, she might not, for the moment at least, be the best in the business.
“It’s the first step for anyone trying to make the team and it’s the first step for me on a long road,” Grainger admitted. “But that’s why I need to be here. It’s the right thing to be doing it, but it’s also the right thing to be seen to be doing it. I’m not going to be treated any differently.”
On the morning of her first day back as a full-time — and, out of choice, unfunded — athlete, Grainger set the alarm for 6am and took the familiar road from her home in Maidenhead to the GB squad’s training base in Caversham. Jess Eddie, who was part of the women’s eight team who finished fifth in the London Olympics, had rung to ask if Grainger wanted her old place back in the changing-room. Grainger gratefully accepted and arrived early to reclaim her spot, just opposite the door.
Her first text of the day came from Anna Watkins, her partner in the double sculls in London. It read: “12km? Weights?” Exactly right. If it’s Tuesday, it must be a 12km steady row and a session in the gym; Wednesdays, two sessions and a half-day; Thursdays, two sessions, one on the water, one weights. Welcome back to a week laid down by years of success and defined by the unforgiving red numbers on the ergo machine.
“I was nervous driving in, but I didn’t know why,” Grainger said. “I’d not been part of the squad for two years and everyone had carried on without me. How would I fit in? I had to accept that I wasn’t going to come back where I’d left off. I didn’t know whether I’d made the right decision. I didn’t speak to the whole team but I did want to reassure them that I wasn’t back to fix things; I was back because I loved the sport and I loved the environment. I also wanted the team to know that I wasn’t just there to have a go. You make a big commitment as soon as you walk through the door. Nobody plays at this.”
The banter began with the first group stretches but just as quickly died down. On the first day back in training for the whole team, every hamstring felt tight. But the routine, the fetching and carrying of the boat, the endless lifting of weights, the queuing for breakfast in the crew room, the jostling for position at the tables, was eerily and reassuringly familiar.
For two years, Grainger had pleased herself. She had completed her PhD in homicide at King’s College, University of London; written her autobiography, Dreams Do Come True; worked for the BBC as a rowing pundit; been elected onto the British Olympic Association’s athlete commission; attended hundreds of different functions, many as an after dinner speaker, and sampled normal life for the first time in almost two decades.
For months she had wrestled with the idea of coming back, searching for a definitive reason to say yes or no. “Physically, I thought I’d be OK,” she said. “I was more worried about the mental side of it, being just a cog in the wheel again. But I’ve been surprised how quickly I’ve adapted, frighteningly quickly actually. In normal life, days can come and go without any significant achievement and at times I found that frustrating. Sport gives you this incredibly purposeful life. You know what it’s all leading to.”
In the end, Grainger came back because she felt she could, a feeling sharpened by the struggles of the women’s squad at the world championships in Amsterdam in August, where only Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, who broke a 12- year-old world record in the pairs, won gold. Watching from the outside, feeling the disappointment, Grainger felt she still had something to offer. The question of “Why come back?” changed subtly to “Why not?”
Quietly, away from prying eyes, Grainger has been testing herself on the water. “I wanted to know if the boat felt alien after such a long time away,” she said. “But the feel was still there and the enjoyment and the excitement. It felt right to be back in the boat.” She has also assimilated the relentless ‘swish swish’ of the ergo back into the soundtrack of her life, hauling her reluctant body through the weekly timed 18km (75-minute) tests, rediscovering a level of physical exhaustion that makes turning on the kettle afterwards a major feat of endurance.
If Grainger is setting targets for today, she is keeping them to herself. “It’s a time trial, which I’ve never enjoyed,” she said. “But it will be good to be on the start line when it does start to matter and to go through all the emotions. It makes it very real. It would be daft to say, ‘I’ll win’, but I will know if I’ve performed well or not.”
Grainger’s journey to the shores of Brazil in 2016 begins today on the flatlands of Lincolnshire and there is no time to be lost.
Article with thanks to Andrew Longmore – Sunday Times