There are stories behind every Olympic medal of sacrifices, adversity and obstacles overcome. But there are few as inspiring as Katherine Grainger’s tale. It is one which spans an astonishing twenty-three years, the latest chapter of which finishes with her becoming the most decorated female Olympian in history. And at the grand old age of forty, too. In Rio yesterday, alongside that supreme sculler Vicky Thornley, the Scot won silver in the women’s double sculls to make it four silvers and one precious gold medal from five Olympic Games.
It was almost another gold to go alongside the one she won at London in 2012. The duo led for 1,800 metres before they were overhauled by Poland in the dying moments. Grainger and Thornley needed the biggest ten strokes of their lives to hang on to the advantage they had so forcefully forged in the first half of the race. But it was not to be.
However, a medal of any colour is a triumph given the turbulent and torrid season Grainger and Thornley have suffered. Last year they finished last in the World Championship final. At the European Championships this season, their first test of the year, they finished fourth. Not good enough. The double was dissolved and, in June, Grainger and Thornley were given the chance to race for a seat in the women’s eight. Failing to make that crew, they found themselves without a boat to row to Rio. But the bosses at GB Rowing back-tracked at almost the last minute and resurrected the double and gave them the chance to race at Lagoa Rodrigo Freitas.
For Grainger, this is a vindication. She risked her reputation when she decided to come back to the sport after what looked like the perfect fairytale ending four years ago at Eton-Dorney in partnership with Anna Watkins. How could that ever be bettered? But the ‘what-ifs?’ would eat the six-time world champion alive. She had to see what she was capable of. Her story was not over just yet.
To win silver after two years in retirement is arguably her finest hour. Indeed it is nothing short of miraculous. It is testament to her unwavering self-belief and the faith she and Thornley had in their ability to perform when it mattered. There was raw speed in the boat. It just needed the grandest of stages and a little bit of Olympic spirit.
At 40 years old, Grainger is two years older than five-time Olympic champion Steve Redgrave when he won his last title. Mum-of-two and 2014 European champion Jo Pavey will race today in the final of the 10,000 metres, aged 42. And American cyclist Kirstin Armstrong, who is also a mother, won her third Olympic time-trial title this week, the day before her 43rd birthday.
Too often barriers are placed in front of sportswomen. They are deemed not good enough or too old or too weak to achieve the seemingly impossible. Very few believed Grainger and Thornley were capable of a race of such high quality. But as Grainger’s Rio swansong proved, the unthinkable and the unbelievable are possible no matter your age or gender.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.