After the Gold Rush

Katherine Grainger on her battle to make Olympic history and her fairytale memories of London 2012

WHAT was your favourite moment of London 2012? Mo Farah’s triumph on the track? A sixth Gold for Chris Hoy? Danny Boyle’s mad opening ceremony? Perhaps. But for many of us it was watching Scot Katherine Grainger clinch an elusive Gold in the rowing.

Nobody knows better than Katherine herself just how popular a victory it was because, in the hours, days, weeks, months, and now years, since she and partner Anna Watkins crossed the finishing line at Eton Dorney, people have told her so.

Four years on, as she faces a new battle just to be selected for an astonishing fifth Olympics in Rio this summer, she recalls how Britons from all walks of life, shed their normal reticence to congratulate her: on train platforms, in queues at the bakers, and in every school she let delighted children wear her Gold medal in.

As she returned to what would subsequently pass for normal life following her long-awaited triumph, she received cards, letters and visitors, all sharing their experience of her experience.

A less level-headed person might have found it hard to keep their feet on the ground.

But Katherine, who is currently training seven days a week as she faces a last-ditch fight to make the team, simply revelled in it, then got her books out to continue her studies. She also found time to write her autobiography Dreams Do Come True.

With her Phd in Homicide Sentencing complete, having toured schools and businesses and worked as a pundit for the BBC, as well as becoming chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, she ended a two-year break from the sport by getting back to the day job in September 2014.

She is already the only female athlete to win medals in four consecutive Olympics, and came back in a bid to set new records by targeting a Rio medal to add to her collection.

Rowing is Team GB’s most successful Olympic sport, with Golds at every games since 1984, and the nation reacted in a similar way to her success four years ago as it did to Sir Steve Redgrave’s fifth successive Olyimpic gold in 2000.

Now Grainger is desperate to emulate Redgrave by becoming a medallist at five consecutive games including three silvers, starting with Sydney in 2000, Athens and Beijing, the latter still the bitterest blow of her career.

But, compared to previous campaigns, and despite that Gold last time out, she now faces one of her biggests tests: just to book a seat in a boat after selectors called time on an ill-fated fresh partnership in the double sculls just two months before the team flies out to Rio. It seemed as if the fairytale would continue when Grainger’s Gold-winning partner Anna Watkins
made a return last year, after quitting rowing to have children. But the reunion was short-lived and Watkins stepped down from the team again in February.

Grainger resumed an attempt at forging a successful partnership with 28-year-old Victoria Thornley, a former model and equestrian rider who was a finalist in the Women’s Eight at London 2012.
Having qualified their boat for the Olympics last year, with a sixth place at the World Championships last September, the pair missed out on a medal at the recent European Championships in Germany, coming fourth, one place worse than 2015’s bronze at the same event.

In contrast, Lossiemouth’s Heather Stanning, and partner Helen Glover, who started the Gold rush back in 2012, and won back-to-back world titles in 2014 and 2015, triumphed again, successfully defending their European title.

Grainger and Thornley’s disappointing result was followed by the bombshell news that selectors had ended the pair’s bid for glory in the doubles.Instead they face a last-minute contest to secure seats in the women’s eight: no mean feat considering the current crew claimed victory in the European Championships.

Katherine said: “It has put my Olympic place in the balance. I’ve never been in this position before, not having a seat in a boat so close to an Olympics but I don’t want to walk away from it now. “The double has been very close to my heart so I’m very sad about the decision. Defending the title was a driving factor in me coming back, so personally and professionally it’s disappointing, but Vicky and I weren’t performing to the right level so we have to look at other options.

“If we can help to make the eight faster, it’s a very exciting opportunity because they are a top class crew already. But it has been made clear to us that we will have to earn our places.”

The team announcement for Rio is pencilled in for the beginning of June but there is a chance the full team may not be announced until later in the month, as the pair battle it out for a seat in the eight to guarantee a seat on the plane. Testing for the boat will begin when the team returns from a World Cup event in Lucerne at the end of May, leaving just a final warm-up event in Poznan from June 16-19.

However, despite the shock news, the pair were boosted by Redgrave who backed them to book their places after realising their medal hopes were slim. He said: “I still expect both to be in Rio.

Their training times have been good and they are among the top scullers in the women’s squad. I suspect the girls were keen to make a change. Neither of them would want to go to the Olympics unless they were a bolted-on medal hope.

“There is no guarantee that Katherine and Vicky will make the eight quicker. But if they do, it would be crazy to take two boats – the eight and the double – that might finish outside the medals,  when you could strengthen one of them by making a change.”

Grainger has famously been in the reverse situation, where almost total domination on the water was followed by bitter failure at the Olympics.

So, with expectations lowered, it’s a safe bet that she will be training even harder at the Redgrave Pinsent rowing lake in Caverham, Berkshire.

It is a quirk of the sport that even though the two-woman boat is qualified for Rio, those who will be sitting it are not. However, speaking before the demise of the partnership, Katherine conceded that it would be unthinkable that she will not be on the plane to Rio.

She said: “As athletes you never make assumptions, you never treat it as a forgone conclusion. You never want to be complacent but it would still be a surprise not to be in that team announcement.

“It was a very different partnership. Anna and I were together for three years leading up to London. We had this magical fairytale where we won everything we did and we got on very well. Leading up to a home Olympics was probably in some ways the biggest pressure I have ever experienced. But we managed to really enjoy it, soak it up, and realise it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was a very successful crew, a very successful time for the country. We absolutely had a ball and then you get to win Olympic Gold on top of it. It was all slightly fairytale stuff.

“When I made the decision to come back and go again, I knew it would be a very different situation. Having had time out I had never had before and me trying to find my own feet and fight my way back into the team. There were a lot of new partnerships. I didn’t know what boat I would be in and who I would be with.

“Initially when I came back last year it was all about me making sure I was back where I needed to be, sure that I was adding to the team and bringing my best standards which need to be at the top level.”

Thornley, the fastest single sculler, came through the Sporting Giants project for women over 5ft 11in. At 6ft 4, she passed the qualification and the assessment which saw her introduced to rowing and eventually led to what the GB selectors had hoped would be a winning partnership.

Grainger added: “It was a boat that Vicky hadn’t spend a lot of time in before and we hadn’t rowed together before. It’s almost like a new relationship; trying to get to know each other and your likes and dislikes, how you work under pressure and all different things.

“We some had some real success last year and some frustrating moments. It wasn’t as much as we wanted it to be. The key thing was that we have qualified the boat for the Olympic Games. It’s very different to four years ago when Anna and I were reigning World Champions and had been unbeaten for years and were rowing straight for the Olympics knowing exactly what the goal was.”

What hasn’t changed is 40-year-old Grainger’s fierce competitive spirit and hunger for success. If she can turn things around, will going to Rio mean more than her Sydney debut?

She said: “I’m a different person and a different athlete which, is terrifying.

“The first time you get selected for the Olympic Games it’s surreal. You can’t believe it. You’re going to be part of this incredibly small team of people that get to go to an Olympic Games. You’re here with your role models. People you’ve watched on TV and people you’ve grown up admiring. They’re all Olympians and then you suddenly get to join that incredible group.

“Going to Sydney, it was ‘pinch me now’ and all those ‘how did I get here’, ‘I can’t believe how lucky I am’ and all those kind of thoughts.

“This time it would be in a way a sense of deeper pride at going to my fifth Olympics, four cycles on. I still count myself fortunate enough to be in this position and be part of that incredible Olympic dream again.

“The most important thing to me is that I still have that excitement and I still feel it’s as special as it was the first time. That’s as it should be. If I ever felt that dulled in any way I would question if I was doing the right thing.

“I love that being selected would be as exciting as the first time.”

That first Olympics was not Katherine’s last, but despite three previous Olympic appearances, nothing prepared her for the sheer scale of being at the centre of the sporting universe at a home Olympics and the rowing equivalent of Beatlemania.

Katherine said: “It sounds crazy now having lived through it but it genuinely took Anna and I by surprise. All athletes would say there is a lot of talk about being in the bubble. We knew a home Olympics was going to be so different in terms of attention and interest. We kind of knew the whole nation was watching.

“In the post office queue, everywhere I went, people seemed to know the date of my Olympic final before I knew it.

“Then, as it got closer, we were in training camps abroad. We were in Germany for a while, then in Italy and then we came back to Britain. But we were sort of shut away from the hype as it grew. We saw the Olympic torch arriving and we picked up on bits of news, but we didn’t pick on the scale of the excitement building.

“As an athlete you really hope it will all work. But it was only when it started and we experienced the crowds and an incredible level of support that I had never seen before you realised how good it was going to be.

“But even then, it didn’t sink in until three or four days after we had won and both of us went into the Olympic Park together. We had about 200 metres to go and we were absolutely mobbed.

“We were slightly embarrassed and thought they had obviously got us wrong, or they didn’t know who we are or something because, as rowers, you’re not expecting recognition and you’re not used to that level of attention.

“You suddenly have people coming up in tears and talking about their experience of watching the race. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was only as things unfolded about a week after the race that we began to come to terms with just how big that whole Olympics had been. The whole country had stopped to watch and take part and embrace it. It was really lovely that it felt like so many felt part of it, supporters and spectators.

“I didn’t really realise that until after the Olymmpics were finished and I got back to normal life that wasn’t so normal any more.

“It was wonderful. It was very special to be part of something that was universally loved. No-one came up and said ‘that was awful’, ‘I hated what you did there’. Everyone was just thrilled. That went on for years but that whole Games experience was once in a lifetime. I loved it and embraced it. We did all the open top bus tours, trips to the palace, awards ceremonies, schools, it was constantly celebrated and people of all ages were clearly thrilled by it. You got these amazing letters from people, saying how much it had changed their lives. I got one from someone who had lost a parent and was really struggling with depression but found the Olympics had lifted them out of that.

“We train for 80 per cent of the time in Caversham, in the middle of nowhere doing our thing and you’re not really aware of the rest of the world.

“You’re doing something quite selfish for yourself, so it was nice to actually feel that it does have this incredible impact and influence and we’re all part of that.

“I can’t overstate it enough. It really was quite a magical time. I remember getting on a train and was waiting and a woman came running up the platform and said ‘I just wanted to say well done, it was fantastic’. It’s usually a British thing that they will recognise you but don’t want to make a big deal. People do it quickly, very politely and just want to make that connection.

“I’ve not had a level of fame that has impacted my life in a negative way. It’s just lovely and a reminder of a very special time.”

Another reminder is, of course, her medal.

She said: “I’m not at this stage where I sit on my own and take it out and have a look at it, though that might be in years to come. I take it out if someone has asked to see it or I go and visit someone, especially school age. They love holding and playing with the medal. It’s a reminder of just how special it is. Normally it’s not on show, it’s just tucked away. I know it’s there, I know what I’ve done to get it and I know what it has done for me but I don’t need to see it to remember all that. You always know you will have it but you don’t necessarily need to see it.”

Now the hope is that more good times and another victory may be round the corner.

But Katherine is no stranger to a cruel reversal of fortunes. Only those at the very pinnacle of their sport regard an Olympic medal as a failure.

And the darkest moment she has endured was a second place in Beijing, a blow that nearly crushed her, that she now concedes was an essential part of her subsequent victory.

She recalled: “My lowest point, and it sounds ridiculous, is Beijing when we won the silver medal. It sounds terrible to say the worst moment of my whole career was winning an Olympic medal.

“I won my first silver medal in Syney in 2000 and, at that point it was the happiest day of my life. It was the most incredible thing to win. It was a really close photo finish and I thought it was a bronze, so I was over the moon. At that point in my career an Olympic medal was just everything. The colour was irrelevant. I think it was first for the women’s team in Olympic history, so it was the massive breakthrough we had been hoping for.

“But eight years on … blood, sweat and tears and devoting your life to this strange, monastic lifestyle of an athlete. I knew I was better than I had been but we still had the same result. We were triple world champions going into the Olympics so it felt like now or never: that this was the best chance we would get to win Olympic Gold.

“We led for three quarters of that race. It just felt devastating because the expectations were so incredibly high. I felt a huge responsibility as the older, most experienced one in the boat. I just felt we should have delivered that result. The horrible thing is you know you failed, you feel that you’ve let everyone down.

“We didn’t come back with what we should have. Of all my medals, it’s still in pristine condition. I wasn’t ashamed of it … I just didn’t want to show it to people. My London medal is dented to bits now.

“Now, I feel very differently about it. Quite possibly if I hadn’t have gone through that experience I wouldn’t have won Gold in London. It’s very much part of my experience and has made me a better athlete.

“It was really valuable but a horrible lesson I would never wish on anyone. It’s your job but, in a way, it defines you as a person. I can now look at the medal with pride and a smile and not tears.”

A desire not to let rowing define her was behind her next move: to walk away and find out if there were other things in life that she was missing out on and if they could deliver the same level of satisfaction.

The former Edinburgh University law graduate, who also has an MPhil in Medical Law and Medical Ethics from Glasgow University, added: “For Anna and I, everything was planned, right up to the Olympic final and we knew 10 past 12 on the third of August 2012 was the moment of our destiny.

“We genuinely did not talk or think about anything past the finishing line. When we crossed the line we were in uncharted territory. We didn’t really know how to deal with everything that came next.

“The huge celebrations kept going but there was a massive comedown. It was exhaustion in a wonderful way. We went from a world that was very structured and you know what you’re eating and what time you’re going to bed and you enter a world that’s almost 24/7. We hardly slept.

“I remember getting to Christmas and thinking I needed some structure back in my life. I just knew I couldn’t go straight back to rowing at that point. I wasn’t ready mentally or physically. I needed a break and to get some distance and decide what to do next. I realised that would take a while and that I would have at least a year off. “I decided to finish off my Phd because that had been going on for at least 10 years … I gave about three months to finish it off.

That was really good for rebalancing. It gave me something to focus on and brought me down to sensible level. I got to end of that year and then felt I hadn’t had a break. I just hadn’t stopped.

“I wanted to do other things, so did lot of BBC stuff including covering the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, which was fantastic, and whole range of different things.

“I was open to one of them sparking my interest but then got to thinking. I don’t think I’m done with it. I might have achieved but it’s an environment I love and I still want to be in, so I made the decision to come back.”

TOP TIP: ROWING

For Katherine Grainger, her route to Olympic glory began at Edinburgh University boathouse at Meggatland on the Union Canal in 1993. She went on to capain the university boat club before launching her successful career. She is the Honorary President of the Scottish Amateur Rowing Association and a member of Edinburgh’s St Andrew Boat Club.

She said: “I just did for fun when I started. It’s a great university sport. It’s a very social sport and still is. You meet some great people along the way. I didn’t ever have plans to do this when I started, Definitely get out there and have a go and follow where it takes you because it can take you some amazing places. It’s about fun and pushing yourself.”

www.scottish-rowing.org.uk
www.britishrowing.org

Cycling was the other massively successful winner at London 2012. But while it has been riven with the recent fallout from rows and accusations of sexism, rowing has suffered no similarly damaging scandals.

The cycling upheaval comes after a BBC survey last year which claimed more than 40 per cent of elite sportswomen in Britain have experienced sexism but only seven per cent reported it. Almost half did not believe their governing body supported them and male colleagues equally. There is also ongoing criticism over the differences in prize money for male and female athletes in cycling, tennis and other sports.

Happily, Katherine reports that rowing is a very different world.

She said: “It’s not an issue in British rowing certainly. The good thing is that, the way it’s funded, the way it’s structured, we’re always treated equally. And, as far as sponsors are concerned, we really are one team.

“Whichever part of the team is the most successful gets the most attention, understandably. When I first started Steve Redgrave was about to do his fifth Olympics, so the men’s got more attention but, at the last Olympics, the women won more, so the spotlight was on them. The attention swings but it’s not a sexism thing. We’re very, very equal.”

For Grainger, having missed out on a recce mission to Rio during her sabbatical, the prospect of competing in the heart of the city in one of the most dramatic settings in the world is also spurring her on.

She added: “While I was away the team did make a recce but I wasn’t part of it so I didn’t get to go. But we have a good idea what course will be like.

“We’re very lucky. Usually, because you need huge areas to race on, you find yourself outside the city centre. In Rio the course couldn’t get more central. It’s right in the middle of the city, underneath Christ the Redeemer and it’s a stunning location.

“So it would be very exciting being part of an Olympic team again in a city I’ve never been to. I’ve never been to South America. It’s always that balance: it’s exciting and different but you need to make it feel very normal and just perform at that level.”

If that place in the eight is secured, once it’s over, Katherine, who lives in Maidenhead, Berkshire, is looking forward to getting back to Scotland to catch up with her family.

She added: “I’m patron of Scottish Rowing so I’m still in touch with what’s happening. Quite a few members have come down to join the GB team which is great. My mum and dad and family are still there and I get back as often as I can but at the moment that’s not very often. That’s something I’m looking forward to post-Games, spending some more time. It’s still very much home to me.”