When Katherine Grainger rowed in the London Olympics last year, the country held its collective breath. She had won three consecutive silver medals, at Sydney, Athens and Beijing. Could she, along with her partner in the double sculls, Anna Watkins, finally win gold? She could. Amid the cheers of 30,000 people at Eton Dorney, Grainger became Britain’s most successful female rower.
After the Olympics she took time off to complete her doctorate in law and was appointed CBE in the New Year’s honours list. She has also written her autobiography – Dreams Do Come True – which is published on Saturday, the first anniversary of that medal-winning performance. It chronicles how a Glasgow-born law student transformed herself into a supreme athlete: from novice rower at Edinburgh university to six-times world champion and four-times Olympic medallist.
Grainger, 37, has not been in a boat for several months when she arrives to take me out in a double scull. It’s a glorious afternoon, which makes me feel even worse about how grim this will be for her: a ludicrously poor approximation of her partnership with Watkins. We meet at her home rowing club, on the Thames at Marlow, Buckinghamshire. She looks tanned and relaxed. I am pale and anxious.
It has been decades since I was in charge of anything more challenging than the boats in Regent’s Park. I do, however, have some form and was once vice-captain of St Catherine’s College women’s boat club. At the peak of my Oxford rowing career (1987) I weighed 15 stone, ate a lot of pasta, and rowed in the number four position in the women’s First VIII. “Oh, four – the powerhouse,” says Grainger, looking amused as she gives me a quick briefing in the boathouse.
She senses worry. I say I know from experience how wobbly a boat is when it’s not properly balanced. “I won’t let you fall in,” she says. I point out that a boat capsizes on page seven of her autobiography. (At the start of a race: “in a fraction of a second the boat spun over, throwing both girls out of the boat and into the water.”) “That wasn’t me,” says Grainger briskly. And we go off to find our boat.
Five minutes and some awkward lifting later, we are on the water. Grainger explains how to use the two oars (or “blades”) needed in sculling – I’ve only previously rowed with one. Relaxation is the key, she says, as we push off from the pontoon. Boat seats slide to allow rowers to make their complete movement, and I start with a half-slide, barely going forward. Then we build up to the full rowing action and the satisfying thwack of my blades hitting the water. “OK, I am going to join in now,” says Grainger.
I’m in the front seat of the boat – the stroke position – and Grainger is behind me, in the bow. The stroke sets the pace, so Grainger will follow my rowing. The key, she tells me, is almost not to think about it – just let the boat find its own rhythm. I do tend to over-think things, I think, so this might be a challenge. Off we go.
The effect of Grainger joining in is – I realise later when things are calmer – rather like the riding lessons I took as a child. The pony would be trotting about and then, suddenly, it would race off at a canter or even a gallop, with me desperately trying to cling on. Grainger is far kinder than those duplicitous beasts, but even when she’s not breaking a sweat her power makes the boat sweep dramatically through the water. It’s well out of my comfort zone, and the boat rocks a bit, but once I get used to it, it’s sublime. In their Olympic final, Grainger and Watkins were rowing at more than 30 strokes a minute. I ask what stroke rate I am managing. Mid-20s, says Grainger. Not too shabby, I think.
We pause to let a big pleasure cruiser and its wake pass by, blades resting on the water, our faces soaking up the sun. Now I realise how curiously intimate rowing is. It’s probably something like the psychology of the analyst’s couch, where not looking at the shrink helps people to unburden themselves. Later, back on dry land, I ask Grainger about this feeling. She says that life-long friendships are forged in boats: “We almost had heart-to-hearts out there, as it’s easier to speak to someone’s back, rather than looking them in the eye; and yet you are in very close physical proximity and you are also in the middle of a lake or river. You are away from everything else, so it’s even more intimate – you can’t be reached, no one can actually touch you.”
Certainly Dreams Do Come True is as much about people as it is about the physical and mental challenges of world-class rowing. Grainger is clearly a brilliant team player – she loves the social side of the sport, and relishes the close bonds between rowers and coaches. She is also honest about the setbacks – fallings-out, race debacles – and, most notably, the bitter disappointment of a silver medal in Beijing in 2008: “For the months following my return to Britain I felt as though I was experiencing grief.” It was some time before she felt positive enough to commit to four more years of training for the London Olympics.
Out on the Thames we get some smooth patches and I am deliriously happy. Rowing, when it goes well, is like nothing else – as much an art as a sport. Later, Grainger sums up its appeal: “The boat in the water tells you things about how you are rowing – in its own way it’s telling you where you are going wrong and right, and if you can be adaptable, flexible and, I guess, aware – then the whole thing goes into a different plane and there is something quite magical about it. If the boat is at its true speed and you have a great combination of athletes, then it is like flying – or the closest thing I can imagine to flying – and it almost feels effortless. You and the boat almost become one.”
Flying. That’s what it is. As we lift the boat out of the water, I feel pleasantly stretched. My muscles ache. Grainger looks happy. What’s next for her? “I suppose it’s a breathing point for me – I have offers from the academic world, and the law generally.” But she hasn’t ruled out training for a fifth Olympics in 2016. “It’s a big decision to make. The usual phrase you hear from athletes all the time is that ‘you are a long time retired’ – when you do bring the curtain down finally it never goes back up again.”
Rowing is hard. It makes you cry with pain, it’s truly horrible in winter, and everyone seems to get injured (Grainger’s book recounts a career-threatening back problem at one point, and many of her colleagues drop out because of injury). At its best, though, rowing is addictive perfection.
We say goodbye. I believe Grainger when she says she’s enjoyed it. “That wasn’t a hard training session for either of us, but being in a boat like that, you do love it, and you know that that’s what you are good at as well …” On the riverbank on a perfect afternoon I sense, just a little, how hard it would be for a world-class rower to walk away from this way of life.
Isabel Berwick is associate editor of FT Life & Arts.
“Dreams Do Come True” by Katherine Grainger is published by Carlton Books (£20).