Katherine Grainger in her own words

The latest Rowing & Regatta magazine, which came out on Monday, features a 1,600-word feature on Katherine Grainger’s roots; her route from reluctant recreational rower to four-time Olympian.

The original commission was for 800 words but I had to ask for an extension. I could have produced four times that, and much of it would have come from Katherine herself.

In squeezing all the information in, it was difficult to include Katherine’s stories on each subject we touched upon, or to convey fully the gentle sense of humour that runs in tandem with that grittiest of determination. Here are some of the out-takes.

On taking up rowing at Edinburgh University:

“We’re six months out from my fourth Olympic Games and I never saw that coming, it was never the game plan. It wasn’t me growing up thinking: I want to be an Olympian and a multi-Olympian.

“I didn’t start rowing until I was at university. I really wasn’t good when I started. I spent about two years being quite awful at it but I loved it!

“I went to university to get a degree. I started rowing because someone said I’d be good at it (and there was probably free beer or something) and I stuck at it because I loved the people in the club.

“It was one of those clubs that trained incredibly hard, considering it was just university, in your free time but also had a very good attitude to enjoying it. Every session was balanced, we’d go out for a drink afterwards or some food, or make a weekend of it. The personalities there are some of my best friends, people who know how to work hard, play hard and make the most of anything.”

On her first outing at Clydesdale RC, several years before university, with sister Sarah, who is 18 months older:

“Our next-door neighbour Gordon said, ‘You must come rowing!’ Their son Colin would come round and show off the blisters and calluses he’d got from rowing. It’s not very attractive to a girl in her early teens!

“I wasn’t convinced rowing was my thing but they persevered and one day I went down with my sister and two other friends. We did one session on the river but I thought it was a bit rubbish and a bit cold and I wasn’t that good.

“A few years ago my mum finally confessed that Gordon had come round and said, ‘Your daughter’s actually got real talent for this’. I said ‘Why didn’t you tell me? I could have been even better at a younger age’. And she said, ‘It wasn’t you, it was Sarah he was talking about’.

“My big sister lives off that, thinking if she rowed she’d be even better than me.”

On joining the juggling club at university freshers’ fayre, before being nobbled by the rowing club:

“I still have my membership card. When I went to university, everyone said it was an amazing opportunity to try so much. I went along to the usual freshers week fayre. Things you didn’t know existed, had clubs. I learned what korfball was and ultimate frisbee.

“I never went to a meeting. I don’t even know if there were meetings. If juggling was an Olympic sport that could have been mine. I might have had three golds!

“During university, when I was studying for exams, I found juggling quite relaxing. I still do it sometimes. There was a great shop in Edinburgh where you could buy flaming batons, clubs, knives and all sorts of things. I’m still at the two, three, four balls level.

“Maybe post-rowing, there’s a career waiting for me there!”

Here’s a clip of the interview, filmed for the British Rowing website

On her first rowing pot, in a university all-sports match between Edinburgh and Aberdeen:

“We were rowing in a four and one of my clearest memories was that we were waiting to boat and one of the girls cracked out a huge slab of milk chocolate and out coach was horrified.

“But we went on and won anyway. It was chaos, there were blades everywhere, a lot of passion and enthusiasm and no idea what we were doing.

“That’s how rowing started and should be – it was fun and the high of winning, four of us loving it and finishing first.

“My pre-race strategy is a bit different now.”

On realising she could row for Great Britain:

“In my fourth year my coach Hamish [Burrell] came up to me on the ergo and said: ‘You should go for Great Britain trials’.

“I genuinely nearly fell off the ergo. I thought he was joking. To me the GB team was massively on a pedestal, just after the 1996 Olympics.

“I went down [to national trials] in a pair thinking it was going to be embarrassing. All the GB team were there – people who were legends as you come through the ranks – just standing around chatting casually. I thought it was the most incredible thing.

“I did reasonably well at the trials and I was walking behind a group who were the top women at the time. Dot Blackie had been captain at Edinburgh University before I was there and when I was there her photo was everywhere and she’s made it in the British team and just come back from the Olympics. Mid-conversation, she very casually took one step back and said, ‘Well done Edinburgh’.

“Dot Blackie spoke to us and she knew who we were! It was amazing! The door started to open to GB rowing and from then on I had some part in the team.”

On who she will celebrate with if she wins Olympic gold, after three successive silvers:

“The first person will be Anna [Watkins], who will be there and she will have crossed the line ahead of me.

“Then there will be so many people, almost too many to name.

“The first people you want to see is immediate family – the people who have been there your whole career, who know you and get you.

“I had an incredible emotional reunion with my mum after the podium in Beijing. You can see them from the podium but you can’t get to them. We had to put the boat away, go for drugs testing, there was quite a delay and we finally met up behind the stands and were both in floods of tears.

“I think as a parent you just want to take your child away and make it all OK. It’s tough but if it all goes right, they deserve the most because they’ve certainly helped me through the dark periods.

“Within hours of the silver medal in Beijing, my mum had said, ‘I want to see you in London’.

“I hadn’t made the decision then and I wouldn’t for a while but knowing that someone who is so important to me absolutely believed in me and wanted more for me made the decision a lot easier.

“I’ve gone through a very unconventional route and they’ve just been so supportive, inspiring and inspired.

“For my sister it’s not been easy. She got married a couple of years ago. That was her special day and yet I didn’t know if I’d be in the country. You don’t want to be selfish but so much of my life is rigid and inflexible and it’s not my choice. And that impacts on everyone around you.

“I’ve got some fantastic friends who I first rowed with at university who are a rock solid support. They get it, they know me, they know what it means to me. They’re the people I can go to if I have a bad day and can escape. They make me laugh and I can forget about it for a while.

“It’s been a long career of highs and lows. There’s a lot of people who have been through the highs and lows with me. That’s why for so much more than just me, if the ending’s the happy ending and the right result, a lot of people deserve it more than me. They all will just heave a huge sigh of relief.

“That medal isn’t down to me, it isn’t down to me and Anna, it isn’t down to me, Anna and our coach Paul [Thompson], it’s down to loads of people through my whole life who  have had influence over me, have helped, led, guided and advised me.”

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2 Responses to Katherine Grainger in her own words

  1. Pingback: Highlights from the summer of sport | Martin Gough

  2. Martin, thanks for sharing these – they are great quotes and will be an inspiration to many athletes. I particularly like the fact that she hasn’t forgotten the day to day reality of her beginnings in sport. That Dot Blackie quote is fabulous!

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