Olympic gold medallist and one of the heroes of London 2012, Katherine Grainger talks to Glasgow Guardian about the language of rowing, why early mornings don’t get any easier and how rowing with GB led to her being pelted by maggots by some very angry fishermen.
Guardian: When did you first begin rowing?
Grainger: I kind of had two starts to rowing – the first time I got in a boat was in Glasgow – my neighbours were members of a local rowing club. I didn’t do anymore rowing at school, I thought it was a one-off as I was very busy. I was doing martial arts and athletics and I didn’t have time to do everything.
Guardian: When did your second start to rowing come?
Grainger: My more official start came when I went to Edinburgh University. It was the usual thing – massive fresher’s fair, loads of different clubs, and because I was always into sport, I was really interested in seeing what was available at University. When I was at the fresher’s fair, one of the girls at the rowing club approached me and wanted to know if I was interested in rowing, to which I said ‘no’. She was quite persistent, and said that she thought that I would be quite good which was flattering.
I went along to the first meeting – they said they wanted 16 novice women and had around 50 come and sign up. In a way, that was a good thing for me, because as much as I want to deny it, I am very competitive – because it was challenging was what attracted me in a way, the element that ‘not everyone was going to make it’ attracted me.
Guardian: How did you find the community of university sport?
Grainger: It wasn’t the sport that hooked me initially; I loved how hard it was, the training and the racing, but what made me stay was the effort, the people and the club atmosphere. It all made it very enjoyable. The sessions in the gym were hard, but then after you’d sit and chat. It was very much the whole picture that made it, not just the sport. It’s instant friendships and it’s the people, who in a very short time, you build a very strong bond with. Balancing sport and university wasn’t easy, but I became far better at time management and more disciplined. I was really passionate about rowing and about my course, and I made it work because I really wanted it to.
Guardian: Did rowing come naturally to you?
Grainger: In the first two years I was much better at the physical side, rather than my boat skills. I was seen as good as a novice, because of my overall fitness and strength. When I went into the senior team, that’s when it was toughest for me. My technical and skills in a boat didn’t match my physical side. That can really limit you, until you learn to do it properly.
Guardian: How was your first time in a boat at university?
Grainger: I remember it very clearly; I sat in the boat and they said, ‘bow side or stroke side?’, and I didn’t know what that was. Then they said,’ If you want to come forward and square your blade…’ I know they used that line, because I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know how I come forward, I don’t know what a square is and I don’t have a clue what a blade is!’ It was genuinely like a different language, and I didn’t understand the translation. Instead I thought, ‘oh god, I really am in this different world where people speak this different language.’
Guardian: How did you find it being a novice?
Grainger: The nice thing about being a novice is that none of you know how bad you are. When you’re in the boat you don’t know that it’s supposed to run fast, smooth and consistent and even if it rocks around, you think ‘Oh that’s fine! We’re still moving!’ Rowing isn’t a natural physical movement, but I loved being in a boat, loved being on the water and being in close proximity to your team-mates and having to work together to make this craft move.
It’s a big learning process, that’s why it’s such an amazing sport. You’re so reliant on the other people around you and they’re reliant on you. I was aware of that from the very beginning, and I liked that I enjoyed working in an environment where you absolutely need each other.
Guardian: Have you always been a morning person?
Grainger: God no! I don’t think anyone really is a morning person. I don’t think it’s something you get used to, even if you’ve done it for ten or fifteen years; it doesn’t mean you love setting the alarm every night.
The hardest time in a way was at university because it’s not part of the environment around you. It’s always been a bit of an odd culture, but this is the amazing thing about being in a team – because you know you’re getting up to meet people at the boathouse or for whatever training somehow it doesn’t seem to be as bad.
Guardian: Do you miss the routine of rowing?
Grainger: The discipline is absolutely incredible – time isn’t your own in the run up to the Olympics, and part of me hated how regimented it was. After the Olympics, when I was doing my PHD and other things, I suddenly had that choice and variety every single day, and it didn’t take me too long to think that I’d like some level of routine. I realised that structure gives you a set purpose every day, and I missed that sort of planning.
Guardian: Do you still see Anna Watkins (Grainger’s partner in the double sculls)?
Grainger: We’re both so busy, but we make sure to catch up every week and whenever we do it’s just such easy company. It really is like family, and I feel quite protective over her. It’s a privilege to have that sort of connection with someone, it’s a massive side-effect and bonus of being in sport, you create these incredibly close bonds, and you have them for life.
My friends who I rowed with at university I still see now; I’ve been to their weddings, christenings of their children, I’ve been a bridesmaid because of them, and they are still a huge part of my life even now. Those friendships are the biggest benefit of sport.
Guardian: I hear you have plans on doing the London marathon – how’s training going for that?
Grainger: I only agreed it before Christmas and I honestly don’t think I really thought it through. I’ve always thought it’d be a good event to do, and I do a lot of work with charities. I’m on the board for the charity for the legacy for the 2012 Olympics. They were looking for someone to fill a charity place and I said well ‘I could do that’, and then realised that meant I was now doing it.
The nice thing is that Anna (Watkins) is doing it for a charity as well, and we’re going to try and get together at least once a week and go for a run. Being used to team sport, when you’re working up to a big goal like that, it is nice to have a training buddy as a bit of motivation; if you’re going with someone else you don’t want to let them down.
Guardian: Any stupid river stories?
Grainger: I’ve only fallen in once, up in Aberdeen. The River Dee is close to the harbour, and leads out to the sea, so it gets things swimming in. On this occasion there was this seal – seals must think of boats as big play things. I didn’t realise it was nearby and I suddenly it appeared out of the water, these big, massive black eyes popped up out of the water, staring at me – I had a bit of a wobble and fell in!
We used to train a lot with the squad over in Spain, in Seville, and on a Sunday morning all the fishermen would come to fish. We used to go down and they’d throw maggots at you if you got too close to their rods – disgusting! Sometimes you can’t see their fishing lines when they cast out, and if they caught a fish and the line got caught in the boat, the fish ended up in our boat. This live fish would flap around, and we’d panic because we didn’t want the fish and the fisherman was shouting at us for stealing his fish!
Guardian: Do you have any advice for young people?
Grainger: A lot of what I’ve managed to achieve is because I found something that I was truly passionate about. There’s something special for everyone, and a lot of the time you don’t know what that is. Don’t settle until there’s something you’re really passionate about; it could be sport, it could be art, it could be science, it could be anything. It’s good to have mentors and role models; that’s really important.
You also have to realise that you’re the only person who is you – be inspired but make your own path. Everyone is individual and that is a wonderful thing. Find what you love, what you’re passionate about and don’t set limits on what you can do. Life’s short and if you get a chance at it you might as well make the most of what you have.