THE ATHLETE KATHERINE GRAINGER THE LESSON HAVE SELF-BELIEF
Don’t listen to the doubters – focus on your strengths and why you want to win
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.