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In an Olympic career that spanned five editions of the Games, beginning with a silver in the quadruple sculls at Sydney 2000 and ending with another in the double sculls at Rio 2016, British rower Dame Katherine Grainger collected a medal at each of her appearances, including double sculls gold with Anna Watkins at London 2012. That makes her Great Britain’s most decorated female Olympian.
Born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Katherine Grainger took up rowing at the age of 18, and won her first major medal in the eight at the 1997 World Championships in Aiguebelette (FRA), where she helped Great Britain collect bronze. She made her Olympic debut at Sydney 2000, where she teamed up with Guin and Miriam Batten, and Gillian Lindsay to win silver in the quadruple sculls behind Germany. It was the first medal of her storied association with the Games.
Grainger then joined forces with Catherine Bishop in the coxless pair, with the duo winning the world title in Milan in 2003 and going on to collect silver behind Romania’s invincible Georgeta Damian and Viorica Susanu at Athens 2004.
That second Olympic silver was followed by a third four years later in Beijing, where Grainger, Annabel Vernon, Debbie Flood and Frances Houghton were narrowly beaten by the Chinese quartet in the quadruple sculls, an event in which the Scottish rower had helped Great Britain win three consecutive world titles between 2005 and 2007.
In 2010, Grainger linked up with Cambridge University rower Anna Watkins in the double sculls, the pair proving such an effective partnership that they went 23 races unbeaten, winning back-to-back world titles in 2010 and 2011 to take the Scot’s haul of world golds to six. With their powerful, instinctive sprint finish, boundless confidence and graceful and perfectly synchronised stroke, Grainger and Watkins were a perfect match on the water.
Grainger was 36 by the time she set off in search of Olympic medal number four on home water at London 2012, with Watkins again in the boat with her. Lining up in the double sculls final in blustery conditions at Eton Dorney, the British pair took an early lead from Australia’s Brooke Pratley and Kim Crow and stretched it to half a length by the 500m mark.
Grainger and Watkins were still forcing the pace at the halfway stage and maintained it to record a famous and much-celebrated victory by a length. The long-awaited gold cemented the Scot’s status as one of the most gifted rowers of all time and erased memories of the narrow defeat to the Chinese four years earlier, which had led her to contemplate retirement.
“Worth the wait,” said Grainger, after receiving a congratulatory hug from fellow British rowing legend Sir Steve Redgrave. “Steve promised me there’d be tears of joy this time, which there are. I feel this medal of all of them is the people’s medal. I feel so many people have been behind me and supported me and wanted this for me as much as I have.
“It’s the fulfilment of a lot of blood, sweat and tears but it doesn’t all sink in. Any Olympic medal is a phenomenal achievement but having had three in the past I wanted a gold one to complete the collection.”
Taking a two-year sabbatical from rowing, Grainger completed a PhD in criminal psychology at King’s College, London, did a bit of TV commentary work and wrote an autobiography entitled Dreams Do Come True. In late 2014, however, having been made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire the previous year, she decided to return to the British rowing team. And despite turning 40, Grainger, who was also named chancellor of Oxford Brookes University in March 2015, managed to qualify for her fifth straight Games, in the double sculls. Her new partner, Victoria Thornley, was 12 years her junior.
After placing second in both their heat and their semi-final, Grainger and Thornley set off in search of gold in the final, where they would fight it out with Poland’s Magdalena Fularczyk-Kozłowska and Natalia Mataj.
In the lead at 500m, 1,000m and 1,500m, where they held an advantage of 1.25 seconds, the British duo were reeled in by their Polish rivals in the closing 200m and finished nearly a second off the pace in second, well ahead of Lithuania’s Donata Vištartaitė and Milda Valčiukaitė in third.
“Mum and Dad, I promise: I will never put you through that again,” announced Grainger immediately after making it five medals in five Games to set a new British record. “They’ve been through it five times with me. They weren’t sure if coming back was the right thing for me and they’ve been so supportive since I did. We all know it was the right decision now. But at the same time, I think maybe that’s enough.”