Katherine the Great rows off into sporting history

Victoria Thornley and Katherine Grainger competing at Lagoa during the Rio Games. Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Victoria Thornley and Katherine Grainger competing at Lagoa during the Rio Games. Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

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After five Olympics and nearly two decades, it is all over, though Katherine Grainger has taken a little time to admit it.

When your life has been defined by early mornings, by red numbers on an ergo machine, by an endless search for perfection on the water and a daily routine that leaves body and mind in a constant state of exhaustion, when the return on the effort is five successive Olympic medals, four silver and that unforgettable gold in London, it is hard to close the door and walk away.

But, at the age of 40, Grainger can do so without any need to look back.

at the age of 40, Grainger can walk away without any need to look back

Yes, there would be races she would like to rerun: the defeat in Beijing in 2008 still hurts and gold in Rio would have been a crowning glory.

The British double, outsiders for a medal of any colour after a turbulent season, led into the last 100 metres before being overhauled within sight of the line. But Grainger’s contribution to the development of British women’s rowing cannot just be measured in Olympic medals.

No less that Sir Steve Redgrave in GB men’s rowing, Grainger has transformed the culture and mentality of the women’s squad, setting new standards and flattening so many barriers that by the time she left, medals at major championships were no longer a joyful rarity but a matter of expectation. As she said a little wistfully a month or so after Rio: “They don’t need me anymore because success has become normal.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 17:  Katherine Grainger receives her National Lottery Spirit of Sport Award during the SJA British Sports Awards 2015 at Grand Connaught Rooms on December 17, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Katherine Grainger
Grainger receives Spirit of Sport Award at the SJA’s event last December from The National Lottery’s  Andy Duncan

Grainger was part of the first GB crew to win under-23 gold, to win a world championship medal in the VIII, back-to-back world titles (with Cath Bishop in the pair) and the first Olympic medal (in the quad in Sydney). Besides the five Olympic medals which have made her the most decorated British female Olympian, she won eight world championship medals, including six gold and a silver in the single sculls, another first.

She transformed the image of women’s rowing too.

Not only could women row, they could be witty, tough, confident and complete PhD theses (in law) in their spare time.

Only a few, including her long-time coach, Paul Thompson, knew how hard Grainger could be on herself or saw the frustration that is the inevitable curse of the perfectionist.

Her last race, in Rio, was one of her finest, an extraordinary amalgam of pride and courage and anger and sheer bloody-mindedness that so nearly swept her and her team mate, Victoria Thornley, to an extraordinary finale.

For an age after the line, Grainger sat in the boat with her head in her hands. But by the time she had returned to the shore, the smile was back and the newspapers had their headline.

Katherine the Great it is.

  • Andrew Longmore is a sportswriter with The Sunday Times
  • The SJA’s British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery, take place at The Pavilion by the Tower of London on Thursday Dec 15