Thank goodness Katherine Grainger finally won that elusive Olympic rowing gold medal after three successive silvers. It means she will be smiling and waving from an open top bus today as the Team GB heroes are paraded through the streets of London.
Anything less than gold and the 36-year-old Scot, the greatest ever British female rower, would have been nowhere near London, and not even in the country. Indeed, as she reflects on the enormity of her double sculls win with Anna Watkins as the sun glistens on her beloved Thames at Marlow, she would have been in a numbing world of pain.
“After Beijing, when I won my third silver and was so distraught, I came home and had to endure all the post-Olympic celebrations,” she recalls. “Of course people wanted to say well done and wanted to re-live the Olympics with me. I had to go around carrying my silver medal with me everywhere. I put on a public smiley image when, in reality, I just wanted to find a hole and crawl into it. I understand how good it is to win a silver. I felt the same way in Sydney in 2000. By Beijing, though, when we were favourites to win and lost it in the final hundred metres, every request to see the medal felt like a twist of a knife. I kept trying to say to myself that nobody had died but the sense of loss for me was like a family bereavement. That was Beijing after three silver medals. It doesn’t bear thinking about how I’d react if it had happened again. All I know is that I’d be out of the country now, away from everything and everybody. And I also know I’d be haunted by a huge sense of failure for the rest of my life.”
It sounds terribly harsh for someone who had won six world titles, three Olympic silver medals, a MBE and been recognised universally as the Sir Steve Redgrave of women’s rowing, but Grainger needed that gold medal to repel the demons. Another loss at Eton Dorney would have been impossible to dismiss, an argument of doing everything she could have done unacceptable.
“You see, Anna and I had never been beaten and in the heat we broke the world record,” she explains. “We were in the form of our lives. The final was ours to lose. If we’d lost it then clearly I hadn’t done everything I could. Something would have been wrong. I would have let Anna down and, the way it felt with the coverage seemingly all about me going for that elusive gold, the nation. I was aware that an awful lot of people were willing me on to win. The sense of letdown and loss would have been far-reaching. Mentally, I would never have been able to let it go.”
It was here that Redgrave played his part. The world would see the five time Olympic rowing gold medallist be the first person to get to Grainger when she came to shore at Dorney Lake, their long and heartfelt embrace so fitting and so emotional. Yet he had been there for her and Watkins all week. “It was so special knowing we had Steve in our corner,” she explains. “I knew how much he wanted it for us. I’ve known him since 2000 at my first Olympics, when he was bowing out. He came and talked to Anna and me a few times during the week, after the first heat, on rest days, before the final. He never told us what to do. He just shared his experiences with us and spoke with such authority. I found him both calming and motivational. Steve was incredible throughout the Games, especially for the rowers. He was there to literally pick up an exhausted and distraught Mark Hunter after he won silver and, again, physically lift Alun Campbell to his feet so that he could make the medals podium. He was our rock. He was my rock.”
Despite what must have seemed an inordinate amount of pressure from the outside world and mainly from within, Grainger was able to park her “what if” thoughts.
“Sure, I had my moments, but I was so determined and confident that we’d go well that when I began to go down the route of what if we fail, I was able, mercifully, to shift it out of my mind and focus on something else. I can talk about it now because I won. I’m able to admit that losing would have been totally unbearable for me, probably forever, but I couldn’t allow that massive negative to enter my thoughts and hamper me. Anna says that she knew we’d won it from the halfway point. I refused to accept it even with 50 metres to go when we had an unassailable lead. Short of us capsizing there was no way we could lose from that point but still, while a smile began to appear on Anna’s face, I stayed grim and steadfast. It was only when we’d crossed the line and the gold – that bloody gold medal at last – was won that I was able to release an emotion of utter joy.”
After an initial few seconds of collective screaming Grainger lay back in the boat and looked up at Anna. It would be their first measured conversation. “Anna said: “Is it real? Did we do it?” And I replied: “Yeah, we did it.”
The world of pain four years ago has been replaced with unadulterated happiness, plus the surreal.
“I’ve had a good number of marriage proposals from men who have somehow tracked down my email address,” she reveals. “One sent a photo too, and no, it wasn’t that kind of photo. My Mum’s pleased because I’ve been on the shelf a bit too long and she wants me married off. I’ve never really been recognised before but now I’m stopped everywhere I go. I feel mightily relieved that I finally did it with Anna. The alternative? Utter hell.”
Watkins and Grainger have not seen too much of each other since, although they plan to put this right this morning. “We’ll be meeting up before the bus parade, just the two of us, for a coffee and a catch up,” Grainger says. “It will be the quiet before the storm. Whatever happens in the future Anna and I will always have that bond of winning that gold medal at the London Olympics. We’ll have a little bit of reflection on how our lives have changed. I got most of the attention but Anna and I are equal partners in that winning that Olympic title and I thank her for helping me finally achieve my goal.”
So what now? Surely Grainger can retire in a blaze of glory and finally get around to completing her long overdue Phd in Homicide? She is confident the course will be completed early next year but her rowing career may not, after all, be over.
“It would be crazy to make a decision right now while still riding on the emotional wave,” she explains. “A part of me asks how do you cap winning gold in London? I’ve finally achieved what I set out to do and, let’s face it, I will be 40 by the time of the 2016 Rio Games. Then again, we’ve just won Olympic gold and broken the world record, so we can’t be too bad, we’re still a relatively new pairing that has more to learn and can improve, and I love the training and competition that international rowing has brought to my life. I’ve heard Rio’s a lovely place too.”
Katherine Grainger laughs and a nation utters a collective sigh of relief. “It’s a happy dilemma,” she concludes. “Life is good. I’m content.”