ON a stretch of muddy brown water in front of a wall covered in graffiti and a funeral directors business, Olympic champion Katherine Grainger is reliving the days when her rowing career was born.
It was during her time as a law student at Edinburgh University that the 37-year-old first took up a pair of oars and rowed on the city’s Union Canal.
Fast forward nearly two decades and she is the proud owner of a gold medal from the 2012 London Olympics as well as three silver medals from the previous three games, making her Britain’s most successful Olympic female rower.
In addition, the six-times World Champion, who was awarded an MBE in 2006 for services to rowing, was made a CBE in the 2013 New Year Honours list.
Not bad for someone who “wasn’t very good” when she started out.
“I have been rowing for a very very long time,” she told an audience of children from Longstone and Craiglockhart primary schools in Edinburgh yesterday. “It takes a lot of hard work. It doesn’t come easy. You need to be able to keep working hard and you have to be able to enjoy it. When you’re not winning, loving what you do helps you keep going.
“When I started at Edinburgh University I wasn’t very good. I was actually quite bad. You never know just how good you’re going to be. You can be rubbish but if you work at it you can get better. Don’t ever put limits on yourself. You’re all going to do something amazing in your lives.”
Grainger was visiting Meggetland Sports Complex, home to one of Scotland’s 60 Community Sport Hubs which have been set up by sportscotland with National Lottery funding to provide support for local sports clubs – including her own rowing club St Andrew Boat Club.
Speaking to the Evening News, she said: “It’s so nice being back here. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was training here, learning to row on the canal, but actually it’s a very long time ago. I always look back on it as a wonderful part of my life. It would never have happened if it wasn’t for starting here.
“Edinburgh has played a huge role. It is where it all began and continues still.”
Although she had never tried her hand at rowing before coming to Edinburgh University, Grainger had always been very sporty, with karate being her activity of choice at school.
“I had tried a lot of different sports,” she says. “I loved being a part of it but never achieved anything to a massively high level.”
Having been advised to get involved in as many sports as possible during her time at university, she signed up for rowing.
“When I started it I didn’t think ‘this is going to be the future’. I didn’t have a natural ability for it.
“I enjoyed the people I did it with. That was probably the biggest hook for me. I have always met the most interesting, charismatic, fun, articulate people through rowing.”
This, together with her competitive nature which drove her to be the best she could be at anything she did, saw her make such good progress she was named the university’s most outstanding female athlete two years in a row before being selected for the British Olympic team.
The accolades didn’t come without a sacrifice, however, and while Glasgow-born Grainger and her rowing colleagues were heading out to train early on cold winter mornings, a majority of the students were coming home from a night out.
“It was important for us to train incredibly hard but then we would all go out and have a drink and a chat,” she says. “It was a hard-working, hard-playing team.”
Despite the long hours she dedicated to rowing, Grainger graduated successfully and went on to do a Master of Philosophy degree in medical law at Glasgow University and is currently studying for a PhD in homicide at King’s College London.
Meanwhile the long hours spent training were rewarded with three silver medals in Sydney, Athens and Beijing before the icing on the cake came with a gold in London.
Describing winning her silver and gold medals, she says: “The first time I won silver, I was very happy. It was my first ever medal. Then because I got three in a row, by the third one I wasn’t very happy. The step-up to gold felt like a different planet of happiness.”
Her gold medal win in the double sculls with Anna Watkins at Eton Dorney is now inspiring a whole new generation of rowers.
More than 1000 people across Scotland signed up for rowing courses in the months following the Olympics and 100 juniors and 60 adults expressed an interest in taking up the sport at Grainger’s Edinburgh club.
The elitist image of rowing is also changing. Sarah Williams, captain at St Andrew Boat Club, says: “Our club motto is ‘Rowing for all’. Anyone can take up rowing. It’s a brilliant sport to do.”
Following Grainger’s gold medal win, she says that as well as trying to accommodate all the extra rowers, the club will also have to buy a new boat to replace the one named after their top rower – “Katherine Grainger – Silver Lady”.
While Grainger will spend the next three months concentrating on finishing her PhD, she doesn’t know what her future holds.
“It’s wonderful to have options,” she says. “They are all very good options, very attractive options.”
In the meantime, she will always have a home in Edinburgh to return to as this is where her parents now live.
“It’s lovely to come back. I fell in love with it when I was at university. It’s a very vibrant, dynamic city.”
World-class goal for hubs
AS part of its 2014 Games Legacy plan, sportscotland is investing £1.5 million a year of National Lottery funding into a Community Sport Hubs (CSH) programme.
The initiative aims to provide more opportunities for people to enjoy an active, healthy lifestyle by taking part in sport in excellent facilities.
There are currently more than 60 CSHs up-and-running with 150 expected to be in operation by 2016 across Scotland’s 32 local authorities.
Half of these will be based in schools, with each CSH providing support for local sport clubs, encouraging them to grow and develop.
The aim of sportscotland is to develop a world-class sporting system at all levels in Scotland.
National Lottery funding is also being used to upgrade local sports clubs and facilities as well as supporting 1200 elite athletes by providing them with coaching, facilities and medical support.
A glittering career
Katherine Grainger was born in Glasgow in 1975 and took up rowing when she went to Edinburgh University in 1993.
Her international rowing career took off in 1997 when she won the gold medal at the World U23 Championships. Grainger then finished second at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000.
In 2003, she partnered Cath Bishop and together they won gold at the World Championships in Milan followed by a second Olympic silver medal for Grainger in Athens the following year.
As part of a quad, she won her third Olympic silver medal in Beijing in 2008.
Her top prize came when she won a gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012, again racing as part of a double scull with Anna Watkins. She was awarded an MBE in 2006 and in 2009 she was named Scottish Sportsperson of the Year. She was made a CBE in the 2013 New Year’s Honours List.
With a degree and Masters in law already under her belt, she is now studying homicide for a PhD.