It’s very clearly an Olympic rower’s house right now,” says Katherine Grainger as she ushers me in from the rain into her red-brick house in Maidenhead, Surrey, in the south-east of England.
“Right now” suggests that she feels apologetic about her rowing paraphernalia lying unpacked in the study. This is odd after a summer of outstanding sporting spectacle, with Grainger’s story a scriptwriter’s dream. Dubbed the Steve Redgrave of women’s rowing, in three previous Olympics – Sydney, Athens, Beijing – she had to settle for silver. Then, on home waters, and with the nation holding its breath, she finally struck gold, victory in the double sculls giving her the place on top of the podium for which she had strived so hard, and for so long.
However, as Grainger leads me to the sitting room, it becomes clear that her rowing reference was not an apology but a statement about her home. She may have won 12 medals at world championships and Olympics since 1997 but, she says, “I use my house to get away from rowing in a good way. The only room with rowing pictures is my study. The others are deliberately not rowing or sport.” The sitting room is dominated by photographs of elephants and lions. “They give me perspective and balance,” she says. That was vital after the Beijing Olympics, where she lost gold in the quadruple sculls by a small margin. “It was a crushing disappointment, like suffering a massive personal loss. I had to go through a huge grieving process.”
Going on a safari after Beijing and photographing the game helped that process. “My sporting life is about doing what you can control. You set out exactly how your day’s going to be. On safari, the animals are in charge and you have to be incredibly patient as you wait for them at a watering hole. They’ll come if they want to. They don’t mind if I got gold, silver or bronze. They’ll still be playing in their water hole. Watching them, as I did for hours, wasn’t about any goals or drive.”
The photographs do illustrate Grainger’s personal drive – but in a different genre. Her early ambition was to be a photographer. She took the pictures on a Nikon, then framed them herself with frames from Marks and Spencer and Ikea. “I love the power of a picture, what it can convey in just one glance. Everyone can take something different from a picture.”
Just below the pictures of the elephants is what Grainger describes as a Rubik’s cube of a mirror: a total of 27 panes that create more light in the room. “I didn’t want to have a big mirror so that every time you walked in you saw yourself. I only get small reflections.”
Grainger’s public image has grown enormously since she won gold. “I competed in three Olympics reasonably successfully but was never recognised. Now people stop me, want a photo and tell me they were inspired and that they cried with us when we won,” she says.
Even David Beckham called her, although, not recognising the number, she let the call go to voicemail. They have since met and Grainger says: “For someone who’s such a celebrity, he is unbelievably normal.” She is even more struck by people who keep coming up to her saying, “ You’ve changed a nation. Generations in the future will know about this moment.”
This has made Grainger reflect on the incredible power of sport. “No one ever sets out on a sports career planning to have that effect. It’s very humbling. Through the last three winters, Anna [Watkins, her double sculls partner], Paul Thompson, our coach, and I have sat in miserable weather, raining or snowing, and, over a coffee, discussed what we wanted to achieve in London. It was our personal dream. When we finally achieved it, we realised many people shared our dream.”
Grainger has been able to realise her hopes of owning a home thanks to lottery funding for elite British athletes. Brought up in Glasgow, she took to rowing while studying law at Edinburgh University, making the British team in 1997. After completing her degree two years later, she was told if she wanted to go to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, she would have to move south, near the British Rowing Association’s elite performance centre in Caversham, Berkshire. Her coach arranged for her to rent a room at the National Sports Centre at Bisham Abbey in Marlow, 12 miles away. She intended to stay for three months but only moved out in 2009 when she finally managed to buy her house.
“When I came on to the team the lottery had just started, so I timed it perfectly. There’s no way I could’ve bought a house, or even had a rowing career, without lottery funding. I was also lucky that I inherited some money from my grandparents.”
However, the move away from Scotland does not mean she has forgotten her Scottish roots and she often returns to Edinburgh, where her parents now live. Her kitchen, where she relaxes on a comfortable sofa, houses a curling stone, which is one of her prized possessions, while the landing at the top of the stairs is dominated by paintings of Edinburgh.
“I feel very Scottish and very British. I rowed for Scotland in my first international season but, since I made it on to the British team, I’ve always rowed for Britain. The nice thing about rowing as a sport is that it never breaks back down into its individual countries [as with football].”
She supports Scotland against England but, when I ask her how she might vote in a Scottish independence referendum, she exclaims, “Oh, risky! I’m not so stupid as to answer that question.” Nor, at 36, is she willing to commit herself to the Rio Olympics in four years’ time. And, while she has modelled for the clothing company Long Tall Sally, unlike Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton, she does not see herself as a model: “I haven’t got Victoria Pendleton’s body!”
What she is sure about is that, having always been fascinated by criminal law, in six months she must complete her PhD on homicide – “the dark side of nature”. “I will be incredibly proud because my academic career has been almost as long as my Olympic one,” she says.
What would please her mother is if she could find a man. “I’m still looking, so, if there’s one available, let me know. I have given a lot of my life to rowing. It has been my choice entirely and I’ve never regretted it but I’ve got to share the house with somebody!
Rusty Bear: while Grainger’s grandmother was in hospital, a neighbour called Elaine Rust gave her this teddy bear. Named Rusty, after the neighbour, Grainger inherited it when her grandmother died. Soon after the funeral, Grainger went to a training camp, Rusty went with her – and has accompanied her ever since.
Curling stone: Grainger never played curling or indeed watched it until 2002, when British women won gold in the Salt Lake Winter Olympics. “I stayed up all night screaming. It came down to that last stone that Rhona Martin threw. It was two years after my first games, so I was really into the Olympics and understood what those moments are like when you almost have the result in your hand.” She was outbid for Martin’s curling stone at auction, so a friend got her another one. “It’s got that inspiration from the Salt Lake City gold but it’s also Scottish.”
A cushion: Grainger took this with her to the games. They were presented to each British Olympic athlete: “The people who created them went to each sport [centre]. When they came to Caversham, they laid out all the cushions and every athlete chose one. One of the girls chose this for me because a 90-year-old woman from Scotland made it. It looks tartan but is in red, white and blue: GB colours.”