The Olympic Games always produce heroes, and Rio will be no different. Only four days into the XXXI edition and a few have emerged already; by the end of the week Katherine Grainger could have written herself into the history books as Britain’s most decorated female Olympian. Her backstory is well documented: three consecutive Olympic silver medals were won before finally, and gloriously, getting her hands on that elusive gold alongside Anna Watkins in the double sculls at London 2012. In the aftermath of that win, Grainger took two years away from the sport and it was generally assumed that she had hung up her oars for good.
Not so, and she returned in 2014 with the aim of making the Great Britain team GB for Rio. Despite a journey littered with obstacles, the 40 year old made it to her fifth Olympic Games. Last Saturday, Grainger made a solid, if not dazzling start to her Rio campaign. Alongside Vicky Thornley, she progressed to the semi-finals of the double sculls after finishing second in their heat behind Lithuania. When they compete today for a place in Thursday’s final, they will almost certainly need an improved performance. But with the Scot’s track record, it would be unwise to bet against her.
Grainger is a remarkable individual. That she is in Rio at all says much about her drive, determination and tenacity. The easy choice would have been to walk off into permanent retirement after London 2012. After all, how could she top that? Olympic gold at your home Games is, surely, an unsurpassable pinnacle. On announcing her return, Grainger admitted that she had agonised over the decision. She knew it was not only the stress of competition that she would have to contend with; it was the mid-winter training sessions on the Thames at the crack of dawn, and the strain that elite-level training would put on her body. It was also knowing that she would again have to give up any semblance of a normal life.
However, even as recently as two months ago, it appeared Grainger had not done enough to make Team GB. Both she and Thornley fought for places in the women’s eight, but missed out on selection. Confirmation that she would be going to Rio was delayed until the very last moment, but eventually it was announced that the pair would compete in the double sculls.
Grainger, who has been at the top end of her sport for almost two decades, has described 2016 as the toughest year of her career. But the fact that she negotiated the barriers placed in front of her says much about her mental strength. For many, the preferred choice would have been to wave the white flag and walk away. This is not the Grainger way: she is willing to risk her legacy for one more shot at glory. Of course, it would be ridiculous to suggest that her previous achievements would be tainted in any way if she does not secure a spot on the podium in Rio. However, unless she and Thornley win gold this week, Grainger will sign off her Olympic career on a lower note than had London 2012 been her last hurrah.
It is this fact, though, that makes Grainger such an admirable champion. Elite sport is brutal – a fact that she knows only too well – and reputations or previous achievements mean nothing once you are on the start-line of an Olympic final. But irrespective of whether she caps off her career with the dream finale of a second Olympic gold medal, Katherine Grainger will remain one of the most impressive athletes this country has ever produced.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Egelstaff is an Olympic badminton player who competed at London 2012, as well as representing Scotland at three Commonwealth Games, winning two bronze medals. She retired in the aftermath of the London Games after a 12-year international career. Having written the occasional article for newspapers while still competing, she decided to try and make sports journalism a job. Susan is now a columnist and sports writer with The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The National and is a regular contributor on BBC Radio Scotland. Susan is also heavily involved with the Winning Scotland Foundation, a charity which helps children achieve their goals. Susan’s latest articles.