Katherine Grainger on the Olympics, the media and only starting rowing for the socials

Felicity Garvey 1 March 2018

When Katherine Grainger sat down at the union, the woman who is now Britain’s most decorated female Olympian reminisced about where it all started. “I first signed up for rowing because they said there’d be a free drink.” She confessed with a laugh, explaining that prior to university, she’d only been on one very unremarkable outing in a boat, during which her sister, not her, had been lauded as the potential talent. Even when she started rowing at university, it was largely because of the social side of things. “I made friends for life… I fell in love with the people before I fell in love with the sport.” Despite the pressures of sport, studying still remained important to her. In 2012, as well as gaining her Olympic gold medal she also gained a PhD in law. When asked about her best university experiences, she replied that “the best ones, I probably can’t remember.”

Her rowing career did not have a very auspicious start. While she was always physically fit, it took some time to develop her technical ability. In her second year, when the senior teams were announced, she only made it into the fifth and final boat. Grainger said this failure marked a real turning point for her, and that failure was important because “how you deal with that is how you define yourself ultimately.” She said she never had great ambitions, but once she overheard her trainers talking about her, saying “one day I think she can row for Scotland”, her outlook changed. By her 4th year she was captain of her university boat club and was rowing for Scotland. Her first Olympic games, however, was a completely new level. “The opening ceremony so intense.” She explained that there is no way of getting rid of the nerves. “Its heart thumping stuff … makes you feel so alive.” She also noted how the dread could set in beforehand, recounting a story of how Matthew Pinsent, on his way to an Olympic final, hoped his bus would crash. “You never don’t feel pressure, but it’s your own pressure.” She explained, “The most extreme was London.” This was she won the gold that she says is her favourite medal. She also emphasised the significance of the silver medal she won in Rio 2016 after facing setbacks in the run up to the games, with Steve Redgrave telling her “It’s not the best medal you’ve ever won, but it’s the best result you’ve ever had.”

Grainger is now the Chair of UK Sport, the government body for the development of elite-level sport. “I’d never written a CV before,” she said “I was a little bit shocked when they offered me the job!” Her role involves allocating funding, which recently came under fire for leaving sports such as basketball and wheelchair rugby with very little, while less accessible sports like Bobsleigh and Dressage received huge sums. Grainger explained that “the decisions of funding get made on the potential of that sport,” with winning medals being the ultimate aim. She notes that because they receive vast sums of public money, they have to be held accountable. “You make the four year investment and then it gets reviewed annually.” She also touched on the importance of media coverage in sport. During the interview, she said, “You should never underestimate the power of getting the media behind [a sport].” She admitted that when the women’s boat race received the same coverage as the men’s, she thought it really “changed the sport”. She spoke of the importance of inspiration and how seeing other people be successful – not just in sport – can push you to achieve. This is something that media coverage plays a significant role in, as well as having real life role models. When asked for advice to the students, she told them to “never settle”, adding that “life is short and it will go so fast … There is stuff that you will do that only you can do.” Indeed, it sounds like she might be taking her own advice, because despite saying that Rio 2016 was her last Olympic games, she admitted that she received an e-mail asking her to confirm if she no longer wished to be considered for team GB… and she still hasn’t replied.