Along with swimmer Rebecca Adlington, Katherine Grainger is Britain’s most decorated female Olympian. Now the rower is aiming to add to her haul of three silvers and one gold medal in Rio this summer. Laura Winter hears the story of a 40 year old who refuses to lay down her oars just yet.
It was the stuff of fairytales. Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins, unbeaten for three years, stormed over the line in the women’s double on home water at Dorney Lake to provide an enduring highlight of the London 2012 Olympic Games. For Grainger, the gold medal was redemption, relief. Finally, she had done it.
The bitter disappointment of losing to China in the women’s quadruple sculls in Beijing four years earlier, her third Olympic silver medal, had almost been enough to push the six-time world champion out of the sport all together. But London was calling and the time was right. At the fourth time of trying, Grainger was an Olympic champion and her story was complete.
The Glasgow-born champion took some time away from the sport and threw herself into media duties. Retirement looked likely, or so we thought. But Grainger couldn’t bear to live with the ‘what ifs’, and ahead of the 2015 season she returned to the sport she loved.
Now she has been selected in the women’s double with Vicky Thornley for next month’s European Championships, a strong indicator that, barring disaster, she will be racing her fifth Olympic Games in Rio this August, with a chance to write the sequel to London.
And despite the enormity of the task, the inevitable pressure and the punishing training schedule, there are no regrets after 20 years in the sport. “I don’t feel five Olympics on,” said Grainger, now 40 years old. “I still love it, I still get excited by it, and it’s still a massive privilege to do.
“Going for my fifth Olympic medal is not about what will finally give me contentment, but more like, ‘God, this is so exciting’. I’ve got another chance to see how good we can be and what I can prove. That is the draw, that is the attraction, rather than trying to fit another bit of the jigsaw into my story.
“Having been on the same team as Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, who won Olympic golds every time, is one of the hardest things for me. I’ve been near the top, but not at the top in comparison, which is probably quite healthy for my ego in some ways.
“In London, Anna and I were aiming for something for us and our boat and doing it for that reason. It was almost afterwards when my history came into play – three times trying, fourth time finally winning it – that I thought, ‘That is the story of my career’.
“It’s a harder Olympic cycle – partly because I’ve taken the time out. I needed a physical break after the immensity of London. Having been in the sport for a very long time, I needed a little bit of space. But it was the right decision to come back and I haven’t regretted it. It has been tough physically because my expectations and my standards haven’t changed Trying to live up to them every day is difficult because, realistically, as you get later on in your career, you’re not going to be beating your personal bests. That’s hard mentally to deal with. It’s been more challenging in ways I didn’t expect, but rewarding for it, too.”
It looked at one point as though there was going to be another, very welcome twist in Grainger’s tale. Despite having two sons and stating she would not row again, Watkins made a surprise decision to return to the squad in August 2015, with the hope of competing in Rio. Just six months after having her second child, two-time Olympic medallist Watkins made a valiant attempt to become the first mother to represent GB Rowing on the grandest stage of all. But in February this year she pulled out of the process after failing to meet her targets – an announcement Grainger said was “heartbreaking”.
During the six months Watkins was back training with the team at the Redgrave-Pinsent Lake in Caversham, she stepped back into a boat with Grainger and the magic was still very much alive. “I was absolutely over the moon when she made her decision to come back,” said Grainger. “I didn’t expect it, we’d talked constantly and are very good friends and she had said, ‘That’s it, I have my family now’.
“But two months after that she made this incredible decision to come back. I was thrilled and excited for her. She’s a massive addition to the team, a fantastic athlete and mentally she’s still got it. We rowed in the double and did some racing bits, too. It wasn’t where it was in 2012, but for both of us the magic was still there.
“It would have taken quite a lot of work to get it back to the level it would have needed to be at, but it was lovely getting those days back together. We do have an amazing partnership and I think we always will, in and out the boat, and it was lovely to get that back again even for a short time. It was heartbreaking when she made the decision to stop. But it’s absolutely the right decision for her given the options she had.
“I still think it’s a loss to the team, but the easiest way for me to deal with it personally is knowing that for her it was the right decision to come back, and now she is content she has the answers she wanted. If we had both stopped after London we’d still be struggling with the ‘what ifs’. How do you ever come to terms with that? But she has her answers and I’ll have mine in a few months.
“We’ve both said we’ve dealt with enough in our lives so whatever happens you can cope with it. It’s the ‘what ifs’ that eat you up over time. She’s got a wonderful family and she’s an amazing person. She’s going to have a very successful career beyond, so in a way I’m jealous!”
Grainger’s attentions now turn to the seemingly simple, but often frustratingly complex task of making the women’s double go as fast as it possibly can with world bronze medallist and national champion Thornley. After what she has called “the most unsettled winter” she has ever experienced in the squad, Grainger’s focus can turn from the ferocious selection battle to pure racing. Last season the duo were disappointed to finish sixth in the final of the World Championships. Though they qualified the boat for Rio, they were more than two seconds away from the podium.
But there were undoubtedly positives to take from their first season racing together, and Grainger is excited to see just how fast the boat can go. The pair will race at the European Championships in Brandenburg, Germany, from May 6 to 8, before competing at the World Cup II in Lucerne at the end of May, and World Cup III in Poznan in June.
Grainger said: “It’s a new partnership and those initial days and weeks finding out how each other works are really exciting. It’s lovely having a new thing to create. It feels like we’re coming out of the darkness of winter and you can see the road ahead. We’ve only been back in the double for the last couple of weeks and it’s fun. It feels like a new project but we still have last year to build on.
“There isn’t the same pressure yet. We are a little bit under the radar. That will come but there isn’t the build-up that there was for a home Olympics. There isn’t pressure on me from the outside, but I put the most pressure on myself because I never accept less than the best. I’m hard to live with.
“For us the most exciting thing is the potential we both think it has. I don’t think we’ve reached our potential in any way yet; that’s still to be found in the next few months. And we get to do it on the road to the Olympics and that’s the best thing.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve.