Dame Katherine Grainger, Great Britain's most-decorated female Olympian, talks about teamwork, trust building and the challenges of life after rowing.
It was on a grey August morning in 2012 that Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins crossed the finishing line on the water at Eton Dorney in 6 minutes and 55 seconds to secure the first women's gold medal in an Olympic Games for rowing.
“I couldn’t have imagined [that moment] to be as wonderful as it was,” Grainger recalls. “Standing next to your best friend on the podium, with the UK flag round your shoulders, the gold medal around your neck, in front of a home crowd, was just beyond a dream.”
Dr Katherine Grainger has made a habit of turning her dreams into reality; she is Britain’s most decorated female Olympian, with medals in five consecutive Games, and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2017 New Year Honours list for her services to sport and charity. Indeed, her autobiography, published in 2013, is entitled: Dreams Do Come True.
In it, she writes: “Whatever the result of the challenge, it’s worth being out there in the dust and the dirt. It’s worth the battle and the scars and possible heartbreak. It’s worth having dreams as you never know how and when they might come true.”
In person, Grainger is elegant, articulate and laid back. There is an air of passion in everything she says. But a recurring theme in our discussion is Grainger’s keenness to understand – and tap into – human emotion.
“Whether in sport or any other situation, the bond you can create when you are absolutely and utterly dependent on each other to produce a result, is incredibly powerful. You might all have different motivations for doing something, but by being honest about these, the trust you can create in the team can result in magic.”
Born in Glasgow in 1975, Grainger took up rowing at Edinburgh university in 1993. “I never thought it would go beyond being an enthusiast, I just did it as I enjoyed it,” she recalls. “I didn’t have an epiphany where I thought ‘this is my future’, but I loved the driven, motivated, charismatic nature of the people I was working with. As you get better at something you move your expectations on.”
This thirst for achievement – without arrogance – is an undercurrent of my entire conversation with Grainger. “I was always driven,” she acknowledges. “I have a big sister, so there was always someone to compare myself to. But there was no sense of competition, I just wanted to see how good I could be. That’s what I love about sport – you see your improvements and judge yourself. It wasn’t just about competing, it was about finding my limits and pushing myself to those.”
Grainger’s first Olympic medal – a silver, in Sydney 2000 – was in the women’s quadruple sculls. It was the first British women’s Olympic rowing medal. “It made the four years of exhaustion and mental anguish worth it. It made me think: ‘I want more of this’,” she says.
Four years later, in Athens, Grainger won silver again, this time in the coxless pairs. “It was still incredible, but there was a sense of ‘I’ve done this before,’” she admits.
Returning to the quadruple sculls in Beijing 2008, Grainger and teammates were favourite for gold. After taking the lead for some of the race, the team lost out to China, a disappointing result that later led Grainger to declare herself “always the bridesmaid”.
“Beijing was one of the lowest points in my career… because there were so many expectations,” she recalls.
At the age of 36, London was Grainger’s fourth Olympics, and in the run up, there was much discussion around whether her fourth attempt would yield gold. But it was her “amazing” partnership with Anna Watkins, she believes, that gave Grainger the opportunity to secure the Olympic title.
“As soon as Anna and I got together, we knew we had potential to be best in the world. Everything just came together. People ask me all the time whether it lived up to the expectations of 16 years trying to get the gold, but honestly it surpassed all my hopes.”
Coming back from greatness
Grainger took two years off after London, and had to fight her way back to peak fitness. “The hardest option was to go back, but I wanted to see if I was tough enough to face [Rio 2016],” she says.
“There are no guarantees, the results don’t come to those who deserve it or who need a happy ending – you win or lose, and you stand or fall by that moment. I decided to go back in the knowledge that I might not achieve what I wanted. But something pulled me back – there are ways to improve.”
The subsequent two years were punctuated with mental and physical challenges, not least when the boat’s selection was under question and Grainger did not make the initial cut. “I struggled with that. Part of you says you should be at your most experienced and most able, but I was suddenly coming against challenges I never predicted and never experienced and didn’t know how to deal with.”
So what was her coping strategy? “You have to ask hard questions of yourself and dig deep. There were lots of people watching, public exposure is that ultimate test. It challenged every element in our belief, but we had to trust in what we were doing.”
At Changeboard’s Future Talent Conference, Grainger described trust between people as a critical element of any sporting success. “It’s that level of trust where you give your hopes, dreams and ambitions to somebody else and they give you theirs and you are utterly dependent on each other. It means that during a race, when you are under the greatest possible pressure, you have absolute clarity of thought and trust.”
Grainger’s fifth medal – a silver – was rather unexpected, but her “hardest won ever,” she says. By this time, Watkins had two children so was not competing, and Grainger was paired with new partner Victoria Thornley.
Trust had to be established swiftly. “Having a new team member gave us the chance to have a conversation about what we brought to the boat, why we were in it, gain clarity over the goal, and our values. Trust ultimately comes when you start performing together. When everyone gets it, the buy in is felt, then you boost the trust.”
Maturity and trust in teams
Grainger’s catalogue of Olympic accolades are the pinnacle of sporting achievement. So what is her advice for those whose goals aren’t quite as lofty?
“There doesn’t always have to be a massive goal,” she contests, “but it has to be important to people. Humans will always be motivated humanly. You have to speak to the people you’re leading, ensure everyone has individual missions, they know what value they’re adding, then try to create pride in that individual addition they can make.”
For Grainger, maturity aids the development of trust and involves understanding yourself and those around you; being honest about behaviours that are not aligned with the common goal. “People don’t choose to be immature, it’s generally about trying to figure out the underlying issue that contributes to that behaviour,” she argues.
Often when people are under stress they will go to an extreme. Grainger argues that the sign of a good team player is an ability to predict when those moments are about to happen and find ways to deal with them.
She also believes that when trust is broken, as she observed “many times” throughout her sporting career, it is difficult to rebuild, particularly at top level. “Ultimately, something is missing,” she says. “It’s back to human emotion – personal betrayal is hard to move past. You might be able to fix it, but it’s hard and takes the right character.”
Life after rowing
In parallel with her record-breaking sporting achievements, Grainger has completed a law degree, a Masters and a PhD in criminology. “I’ve always been fascinated by what makes people tick; and in law and justice,” she comments – which perhaps goes some way to explaining her acute observations about maturity and trust within a team setting.
Grainger has accepted that she won’t return to rowing, but says this knowledge comes with liberation. These days, she is occupied by her academic work, and in April, it was announced she would become head of UK Sport from July this year. Does she miss being on the water? “Absolutely. I miss my sport dearly; the passion, drive, focus and people – but you get the option to open your own world a bit more. I didn’t have a ‘what next’ – everything has been about rowing for me. But it’s still a learning time, about trying things, to see what hits me next. I won’t drift into things for the sake of it.”
Whatever the circumstances that prompt someone to change career, Grainger recommends engaging a positive mindset around it. “It’s intimidating and you have to acknowledge that, but also embrace it. It’s an opportunity to ask yourself what you are passionate about and what drives you,” she says.
Being honest with yourself is vital. “I know a lot of people who go into something because they feel they ought to, but be honest about what you really want and you will find the way much easier.