Don’t lis­ten to the doubters – fo­cus on your strengths and why you want to win

Men's Fitness - - Features -

Three days be­fore GB’s Olympic row­ers were due to fly to Brazil, Steve Red­grave, Bri­tain’s five-time gold

medal­list, gave an in­spi­ra­tional ad­dress to the team.

“You are world cham­pion for one year, you are an Olympic cham­pion for life. Dream big. Take that chance, make it hap­pen. Your time, your place, your Olympics. Take the suc­cess that you de­serve.”

As a spirit raiser, Red­grave’s pep talk did the job for most. For Katherine Grainger it did not. In his speech, Red­grave went through all the boats that would com­pete in Rio, ex­tolling their virtues and ex­plain­ing why each had a chance of a medal. When he came to Grainger’s boat, though, he said it would be the big­gest sur­prise if this one was to win a medal. At least that was how Grainger in­ter­preted it.

Red­grave had al­ways been sup­port­ive, so to hear this was up­set­ting. She went up to speak to him af­ter­wards but, even then, given the op­por­tu­nity to lighten the message, he elected to stick with it. “He said: ‘Well, you wouldn’t bet your house on a re­sult, would you?’”

Grainger was row­ing roy­alty – a four-time Olympic medal­list and the reign­ing Olympic cham­pion in the dou­ble sculls – but never had she and her new sculling part­ner, Vicky Thorn­ley, pro­duced con­vinc­ing re­sults. In fact, in spring 2016 they stopped train­ing as a dou­ble and tried in­stead to break into the women’s eight. That didn’t work too well ei­ther. On the eve of Rio, the part­ner­ship still wasn’t quite work­ing.

Grainger knew what oth­ers were think­ing and the me­dia were say­ing – yet Red­grave’s com­ment was, as she called it, “a slap in the face” and maybe a good one. “Yes, we all have dreams of the Olympic Games but the re­al­ity is sober­ing,” she would ex­plain later. “I needed to ac­cept that but still have the fight in me to think we could bring some­thing out of this.”

What was her an­swer? “I broke it down and took it in lots of lit­tle steps. We had 50 days un­til the Olympic fi­nal, that’s 50 lit­tle sec­tions. That nar­rows the fo­cus sharply. Vicky and I would have con­ver­sa­tions about what we could do to make a dif­fer­ence, where we could grow the con­fi­dence. As long as there was some­thing we could find ev­ery day that was mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion, it was OK. Of all the crews out there, we knew we could de­velop the most.”


Grainger had been in four Olympics and won four medals; she knew that showed a cer­tain men­tal tough­ness. “I trusted that to date I’ve de­liv­ered when it’s come to the Games. Not ev­ery ath­lete is com­fort­able in that en­vi­ron­ment but the ath­letes who are will gen­er­ally per­form when they need to.”

With that self-be­lief and the 50-day plan, she and Thorn­ley started to get stronger. In their heat in Rio, they set out con­fi­dently, but were reeled in by Lithua­nia to fin­ish sec­ond – that was only OK. The semi-fi­nal was bet­ter, as they fin­ished sec­ond to Poland by just un­der two sec­onds – but as in rugby sev­ens, the pres­sure of the Olympics was pun­ish­ing un­der­per­for­mance rather than re­ward­ing ex­treme ex­cel­lence: the world record hold­ers Aus­tralia and the reign­ing dou­ble world cham­pi­ons New Zealand failed to qual­ify from their semis.

On the eve of the fi­nal, Grainger, Thorn­ley and their coach met and talked about the race plan and tim­ing for the fol­low­ing day. They were just about to part for the night when Thorn­ley said, “Are we go­ing to leave it there?” And then, Grainger re­calls, “we went on to the next level: emo­tional, heart­felt stuff of why we felt this was our chance and we were both ready for it.”

That night, for the first time in 50 days, Grainger al­lowed her­self to look at the ul­ti­mate goal and found she gen­uinely be­lieved they could do some­thing spe­cial. “Ev­ery­one in the Olympics is tak­ing on that chal­lenge and liv­ing it. It is what makes you feel alive and it is hor­ri­ble and un­com­fort­able, but I thought: this is pos­si­bly my last chance. I gen­uinely felt lucky. I didn’t know what was go­ing to hap­pen, but I knew not many peo­ple get this op­por­tu­nity.”

Tak­ing on the chal­lenge. That was Grainger and Thorn­ley’s re­sponse the next day and, for a stretch of the race, it even seemed that they would win. They soon hit the front and at the 1,500m mark, three-quar­ters of the way through the race, they were still 1.25sec ahead of Poland – but the Poles were tim­ing their fin­ish to per­fec­tion. With 150m to go, Grainger and Thorn­ley could hold on no more. Poland took gold. The boat that Red­grave wouldn’t have bet his house on: sil­ver.

“They had the strength of mind to be­lieve they could do it,” Red­grave said af­ter­wards. In­deed they did.

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