Rowing Change

Rowing Dr Katherine Grainger CBE: London 2012, winning the Double Sculls Final with Anna Watkins


I grew up on the outskirts of Glasgow in a quiet cul-de-sac near our local primary school, Mosshead Primary. There were loads of children in the same street who were the same age as my sister and I so all my early memories of sport were either in the gym at school or outside learning how to ride my bike, kick a football, playing hide and seek, climbing fences, running around the local park. jumping over the stream by the swings, or running away from cows in the fields behind the school. When I was at secondary school I went to Bearsden Academy and we had a nearby loch and my strongest memories there are of running around the loch for cross-country - in all weathers. That’s when I learnt that in sport you don’t only go out in the beautiful sunny days but that running through puddles and getting up to your waist in mud is what you learn to love, or at least learn to survive!

I loved trying all different sports at school. Some I was good at, some I was ok, and a few I was pretty awful. One of the more unusual sports I tried was karate. It wasn’t in the usual gym class but instead there was a lunchtime class taken by the art teacher, Ken Davis. He was a very experienced and advanced black belt and enthused the class with his humour and enthusiasm. My big sister tried karate first and then I joined in as a novice with some friends. Most of my friends dropped out over time but I absolutely fell in love with karate. Looking back I think I gained a lot of my confidence through it and I managed to achieve my black belt just before leaving school. I was the first pupil under Mr Davis’s guidance that had progressed from white belt through to black belt. The most amazing thing was that when I went in the next morning with a thank you card and a bottle of wine to him from my Mum and Dad, he gave me, in exchange, the first black belt he had ever gained. I still have it to this very day and it is one of my most treasured possessions. In the lead-up to 2012 I nominated Ken for the Olympic Torch Relay and he carried the torch through Glasgow then passed it on to me. It was a fantastic thing to do because we hadn’t seen each other since I had left school. School was an amazingly formative period for me and there are people, and teachers in particular, who gave superb guidance and inspiration. I’m sure that teachers don’t always know how much their impact lives on. I didn’t acknowledge it at the time but I’ve been lucky enough to be in contact with some of my teachers from both my Primary and Secondary school since then, to thank them.

I went to University thinking I would carry on with karate but by chance I started rowing. Looking back now I can see that karate gave me a wonderful training base for rowing: I learned all about coordination and balance as well as mental discipline and gained a huge respect for both sport and my fellow athletes. All of those things and more were ingrained in me from my early teens and I used them without realising it when I changed to rowing.

I went to Edinburgh University to study Law and in freshers week I was excited about seeing what clubs and sports were on offer. I was with a friend who stopped to talk to the people at the University boat club. I waited for her while I considered karate, skiing, climbing, windsurfing and more adventure sports. A girl then came over from the rowing club and asked if I was interested in rowing. I said no and meant it. However she was persistent and finally said I should consider it as she thought I could be good at the sport. I wasn’t convinced but was interested enough to go along to the meeting later that week. Over fifty novice women signed up but they only needed sixteen. I wasn’t sure if I definitely wanted to row, but I am competitive enough to know I wanted to see if I could be one of those sixteen! I soon found that it was the people in the world of rowing who really hooked me, before the sport did. The athletes I met in my first couple of years at university were just phenomenal people: incredible characters and, as I have happily discovered, genuine friends for life. The sport itself, even at university novice level, is very tough, challenging, time consuming and demanding but training with like-minded fun-driven people made it enjoyable and worthwhile. By the end of my first year I thought I had made it: I was a rower. At the start of the second year of university it was time to try for the senior team. Again they wanted sixteen athletes but this time I didn’t make the cut. I didn’t manage to break into the sixteen selected athletes. I was devastated. I had to wait as they announced an extra four people who would form the bottom ranked boat and who were considered committed and enthusiastic, but just not very good. The most amazing thing about that night was that when I walked out of that lecture theatre I was angry, frustrated and so upset that I realised that I really did want to do this rowing thing, that it mattered to me and that if indeed it mattered that much then I needed to start again. I needed to admit that I didn’t have all the answers, that I had to learn from everybody around me and I might not be a natural but would work very hard until I could see just how good I could be. The most valuable thing was that from that day to now I have never been complacent in a boat and never ever underestimate the opposition.

I didn’t have any expectations or knowledge of rowing when I began. We started off in the gym with rowing machines, running around Edinburgh and being taught the basics of the rowing stroke. Then we climbed into a mini-bus and drove to the canal at Meggotland. I remember looking down and seeing the canal. There were others on the bus who had rowed on much bigger pieces of water like the Clyde or the Thames and they were laughing at such a narrow piece of water. The road takes you away from the canal but then it loops back. The bus got quieter and quieter as it dawned on everyone that the tiny piece of water we had just crossed was where we were going to be rowing. It is unconventional from the point of view that it is very narrow and reasonably short. If there is more than one boat training at the same time then you have to pull over to let the other one by but the good thing for me was that it was the only thing I knew. It is very protected and very sheltered and has good conditions and has a tow-path right next to it for coaching, so in some ways it does have its advantages over a huge piece of water. It was very narrow with a few stone bridges which are even narrower and steering has to be absolutely spot-on or you could smash your oars into the side. We also learnt very fast starts because at one end of the canal at the turning pool there was always a nest of swans in the springtime. There was invariably a sense of nervousness in the boat as you approached because the male swan would often get very protective of his family. He would duck his head repeatedly, puff up his wings and then in a matter of seconds he would start beating his wings and fly down the canal towards the boat. When you’re sitting low in the water the swans are at eye level and, when they start flying at speed aiming directly for you, it can be quite intimidating. You learn to move very quickly under pressure!

Strathclyde Park, by contrast, is a very big lake and therefore much more exposed. It can be lovely in summer but in the winter when the Edinburgh canal was frozen we would often go to Strathclyde Park where we would get buffeted by the wind and the rain. The only thing that stopped us was if the boats were likely to sink. The Park was the place where I first went out in a single scull: the smallest, most sensitive and flimsiest of all the boats. Before then I had always been in an eight or a four and they felt reliably big safe boats. I recently met the coach who had put me out in the single and I told him that at the time I didn’t know why I had been selected to go out in a single. It had felt like punishment and it had been quite scary to go on a big lake in a very wobbly boat but he said that he thought I knew that he had chosen me because he thought I had a lot of potential and that I could cope with it when others perhaps couldn’t. I just thought at the time that he must really hate me! The reality was that he saw more potential in me than I myself ever realised at that point in my career.

Strathclyde Park was also the place where I rowed for Scotland for the very first time, in the Home Countries International Event. Rowing for my country was a huge thing and getting my first national kit was unforgettable. I remember earlier in the year overhearing one of my coaches saying to someone that one day I might row for Scotland and that really planted a seed. I’m not saying it made me feel that I definitely would, but it made me realise that I really might have potential and that someone believed in me. The racing was fantastic but it was 1996 and the same time as the Atlanta Olympics. I was in a pair and we raced just as Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent raced and won Olympic gold in Atlanta. The crowds were listening to the wonderful Atlanta race instead of us, but to be fair they were winning the Olympics. We managed second place.

Steve and Matthew have always been, and will remain, incredible role models for me. Other events and people also influenced me. When I was growing up, having the Commonwealth Games in Scotland and seeing Scottish athletes doing well had a powerful impact because these were people who might live nearby or have gone to school in similar places and suddenly you can relate to that. When I went to Edinburgh University I was aware of a girl called Dot Blackie who had just graduated before I arrived and who had been the first female captain of the Edinburgh University Boat Club. She was a legend at the University and by then was part of the British Olympic rowing team. Having not just a role model but having one who had been in the same team, sat in the same boat, trained in the same gym as I was now doing meant I had a personal link to a genuine role model. That makes you believe that that level of success is possible.

The Olympic Final 2012

One of the most important things I knew coming into this race was that Anna (Watkins) and I had won every race for the previous three years, that we were fit and well, that this was the best chance of Olympic Gold we would ever get. We believed we could cope with any eventuality or we at least would know how to deal with it. The massive question we couldn’t answer was, on the day of the Olympic final could we cope with ‘the moment’? The pressure had built and built and a nation expected. So many people had helped and supported us along the journey in the most wonderful of ways and we really wanted to deliver the result for everyone. It was a very emotional thing for us too. In sport there is a delicate balance between the detached, practical, objective planning and detail and, on the other side, the emotion, the heart and soul bit. When you get the balance right, that’s when you can do amazing things. In these Olympics the emotions were so weighted, so powerful, that it was almost overwhelming so for me the only way to make sure that the balance was level was to try to stay in the moment and think only about each stroke I was on. We have been asked before, the three of us - our coach, Anna and I - when we thought we had won the Final and our coach said within about two hundred metres. For him, watching from the side-lines, he felt if we started the way we should, the way we always did, the way we rowed at our best, as long as we started that way, we would be fine. As soon as he saw us rowing well he was reassured that we would be ok. Anna said by the time we were about halfway she knew we would win because of the way we were rowing, the way we were feeling and the way the boat was moving. But she didn’t equate it with winning an Olympic medal; she simply knew we were going to win the race. And I knew for sure about a stroke after the line. I think because I was beaten in Beijing, right at the end of the race, there was no point in celebrating and thinking this was our moment until it was definitely in the bag. So when we crossed the line then, and only then, did I let myself acknowledge it and in a joyous instant I knew it was our Olympics. The job was done.

Dr Katherine Grainger CBE

Katherine is supporting the Sporting Memories Network - read more here

Memory added on May 17, 2015


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