Grainger an athlete built to last

With five medals to her credit, rower retires with her head held high


There will be no comeback this time for Katherine Grainger. No more early morning battles with an inert rowing machine, no more fraught conversations with an ageing body, no more lying to herself when the pain kicks in, no more life measured out in numbers on a clipboard.

After she had slumped into the lap of her doubles partner, Vicky Thornley, in celebration of an unlikely silver medal last week, Grainger leant forward with her head in her hands, staring for a long time at the bottom of the boat. With four silver medals and a gold, she had become the most decorated female British Olympian, but the loss of a second gold was complicating the emotional equation.

By the time she emerged to face the world, hugging the victorious Polish crew on the way, Grainger was back to her usual self: bright, eloquent, gracious and self-possessed. Her private thoughts, not just on a race that etched her qualities in relief but on the turbulence that brought her to the verge of retirement six weeks ago, would be banished, probably forever. Despite her outward ebullience, Grainger is an intensely private person, unreadable at times even to Paul Thompson, who has coached her for 16 years.

The genesis of that row to silver, epic in its way, could be found in the despair of an afternoon on the banks of the Thames. Grainger listened to the excited chatter of a novice crew on the water and wondered where her own enjoyment of the sport had gone. That morning she had learnt that her attempt to earn a place in the women’s eight had failed.

Grainger’s heart was not in the testing anyway. She had never been made to wrestle her way into a boat this late in an Olympic cycle and felt the whole process mildly undignified. For once, in a career which spanned two decades, she felt like the outsider and, at the age of 40, with four Olympic medals to her name, it did not seem right. She was not included in the announcement of the Olympic team or the team photo, which hurt even more.

“That wasn’t what I expected at this time of my career,” she said. So Grainger vented her wrath on Thompson, and the following morning she returned to work more determined than ever to make the double work. Two days later, Thornley returned, the pair reverted to their old order with Grainger at stroke and set about repairing a fractured relationship. “I wanted to get back to being me again,” Grainger said at the time.

On training camps in Italy and Germany, the pair stripped back their techniques to the basics and did much the same with their partnership. Having reconstructed both, the boat began to go faster. But nobody, least of all Grainger and Thornley, knew quite how fast until the Olympic final. Even the heats and the semi-final had given little indication that a boat which had essentially been disbanded two months before could make such a spirited bid for gold.

Watching on the bank, barely able to breathe, Thompson thought they had the race won until the Poles mounted one final irresistible challenge inside the last 150m. “Big moments call for big personalities and that’s what Katherine is,” said Thompson afterwards. “What she’s done here and through her career is outstanding and full credit to her. She is a class act.” Grainger will want to be remembered for her final race rather than the painful build-up to it. No less than Steve Redgrave in the men’s squad, she has set new standards and defied others to follow.

Andy Hodge put it best after Grainger’s gold in London. “I don’t know how she found the mental energy to keep going,” he said. “If you bought something made in Britain in the 40s and 50s, it was made to last. That’s Katherine.”

Article care of Andrew Longmore @ The Sunday Times