‘There is an element of being an obsessive masochist’

Katherine Grainger, Britain’s most decorated female Olympian, talks frankly and revealingly (and juggles with satsumas) in the latest Giving 100% film, produced by Virgin Money Giving and the Women’s Sports Trust. In an in depth discussion the five times Olympian talks about the traumas and triumphs of 2016, sport, life, motherhood, being an “obsessive masochist” and her future. 

Katherine Grainger’s Olympic Record in brief: silver (hooray), silver (OK), silver (dismay), gold (wahay!) and, most recently … back to silver (oh dear). What on earth was she, one of Britain’s greatest and most respected Olympians, still doing grubbing around in a boat at the age of forty in Rio? Not even winning. You’d expect her to be somewhat shame-faced as we rendezvous outside Sainsbury’s in Shepherd’s Bush for the – inevitable – riverside film location.

She is not. Not even close. Just interesting, entertaining, self-deprecating and wearing as lightly as ever the fierce intelligence that studied psychopaths during her PhD.

We arrive on the banks of the Thames, seagulls obligingly wheeling overhead. Some poor eight slogs by on the slapping track of murky water. That was her. For 20 years. Why on earth …?

“I would say,” she explains to the camera with a wry smile, “… with tongue very firmly in my cheek, that my sport is sometimes the essence of physical and mental torture. It’s tough, relentless, brutal, painful, hard, exhausting – emotionally as much as physically. And yet, in some weird way, it’s all those things that make up the attraction.”

Her study of psychopaths begins to look a little more personal. The more she talks the more it becomes clear that for her rowing was about trying to win, but also the accumulative, muscle-flaying and desperately hard-won satisfactions of ‘trying’. The tantalising quest. And in that double scull in Rio with Vicky Thornley (with whom she may or may not have been in perfect harmony, but nothing – literally nothing – will she betray on the subject) she scored one of the greatest satisfactions of her career.

“It was hard, difficult, asked a lot of myself because there was uncertainty and doubt along the way. I’d say the year leading up to Rio was the hardest I’ve ever had in my whole 20-year career. Two months before the Olympics Vicky and I hadn’t been selected. There were doubts we’d make it to the start-line, let alone achieve a medal. So to have sat on that start-line, believing in our heart of hearts – based on almost nothing – that we could create a result on the day … is why it’s a race I’m so immensely proud of.”

Cut! She eats a strawberry, thoughtfully provided as a prop. Then, unwaveringly, continues with the story of the nightmare that was her preparation for her fifth and final Olympics. We resume where GB rowing are due to announce the Rio-bound team to a media throng. K. Grainger and V. Thornley are not included.

She smiles. “In a very lovely way I was asked to leave the training area car park because I wasn’t on the team. I was going from being one of the leaders of the team in London to … ‘Will you please leave by the back door’.”

It’s that tap on the shoulder that athletes dread. She ponders the analogy. “Well almost a sledgehammer to the back of the head really.

“It was hard to take. Awful. Most of the time when we watch Olympic sport we see sunshine, beautiful venues, packed crowds, inspiring performances. But behind every one of those performances are really hard, dark days. One of my lowest points was in the run-up to Rio when I didn’t feel part of the team. It was very painful, very hurtful. Not a nice place to be. I didn’t take it personally. I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder. I just had a lot of incredible support from family and friends and tapped into a deep well of belief to some extent.

“It was a very lonely, very isolating moment. I do internalise, probably too much. There were tears. Mostly from frustration. The sense of slight hopelessness was horrible. I didn’t see how this could possibly work out. I don’t punch walls, but there is angry rage that you can’t release. There’s a sense of loss. Is it all gone?”

We know now. It wasn’t all gone. It was the – albeit desolate – ante-room to further glory. Call it something lyrical like “human spirit”, or factual like “pure bloody stubbornness”, she more or less willed herself into that GB kit one more time.

“I wouldn’t want to admit it, even to myself but, yes, I think there is an element of being an obsessive – um – masochist which has brought me huge success in my sport and brought me great things in life. I don’t think I could have done what I’ve done, achieved what I’ve achieved, been as tough and resilient as I’ve been, without obsession.” She added hastily: “I think it’s healthy obsession.”

For someone reputedly discreet (surely she is the only sports person in the world not on Twitter – no, wait, her friend Sir Steve Redgrave isn’t either, so it must be a rowing thing), she is disarmingly honest.

“A lot of people say, ‘You’re a really private person’. It always takes me by surprise because it’s not a deliberate policy. I have always felt that my life outside rowing – well, it’s not what I talk about and frankly right now it’s not very interesting. I suppose when I was growing up, I felt if you talked out yourself obsessively, that’s rude. I’m more interested in talking about other people.

“I do get asked sometimes about marriage and children. Maybe as a female athlete that’s more of an obvious thing. Especially, as I’ve got older, the child question. There’s that biological clock thing ticking. Women are having children much later so the door is open for longer, but I’m very aware there’s an end point on that question.

“For me I’d want to be in the right relationship to consider having children, but it’s something I would still consider on the table. And, if right for me, something I’d want to do.”

She thins her eyes for a moment and looks away from the camera. “I’m just scanning the people going by,” she explains. “Now that David Beckham is definitely not available.”

Her list of interests beyond sport is already copious. Academia, broadcasting, charity work, aunthood, juggling, which she does for the camera with flawless aplomb and the set-dressing satsumas. Her experiences have made her unusually broad-minded for an athlete with tunnel vision.

“Studying law, I became aware of many real hard-hitting social issues in this country. I’ve done plenty of media broadcasts about Olympics which have been interrupted by news flashes of Syrian air raids or African famine, and the contrast I find quite jarring. I still question at times: what are we, as Olympic athletes, really doing? There are so many driven, successful, challenging people in sport. If all of them were out there in the real world doing real jobs – what could we achieve?

“But then I think, ‘I’m not trying to cure cancer and sport can bring light into people’s lives even for a short while’. That’s an incredible gift. Maybe it helps people to believe great things are possible. There’s something so unique about us human beings – a drive to achieve something. It’s a message that goes beyond sport, but sport tells it in a very pure way. That’s why it’s so inspirational and so passionate.”

Which brings her finally to the What To Do Next Question:

“I …” she stops abruptly. “There, I’m lost for words already.

“I’ve got no idea. Absolutely no idea. I’m hoping for an epiphany. I think every athlete would admit that nothing will replace the immense highs, compete obsession, of sport [when they retire]. It’s a huge hole that may never be filled. But it doesn’t worry me. Maybe I’ll find a few things that tick boxes in different ways. For now, it doesn’t need to be the right thing. Just the next thing.”

The river runs by indifferently and we loop back to the beginning. The memory of the Closing Ceremony in Rio and how it almost made her sign up for the ride one more insanely painful and yet compelling time.

“If I could magic myself to Tokyo … I’d do it in a heartbeat. Because I love it. I live for it. I think it does bring out the best in me. I thrive in the Olympic environment. But I also have to be realistic. I’ve been at the top for a long time. I’ve loved it, but I increasingly feel this should be other people’s dreams now. I’ve been very lucky to have had as long as I have. I guess all good things come to an end. I don’t want someone tapping my shoulder, saying, ‘Katherine, enough now. Step away’. I think you need to be the one to know your time’s done.”

Everyone pauses as a plane thunders overhead like heavy punctuation.

“I don’t know if I’ve convinced myself yet,” she murmurs, off-camera.


Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press