Glasgow 2014: Grainger primes Scottish Thistles

THE open waters of Eton Dorney on which Katherine Grainger won Olympic gold are a very different sporting environment from the cramped confines of the netball court at the SECC.

Gemma Sole, centre, has benefited from the influence of her father, Scotland rugby captain David Sole. Picture: SNS

But the 2012 rowing champion is nonetheless playing a vital role in helping the Scottish Thistles prepare for the Commonwealth Games, as squad member Gemma Sole explained this week.

No matter who you are or what you do, a multi-sport tournament and all that goes with it can be a very daunting experience. For a start, there are all the distractions, as Sole and her team-mates found out when they visited the Games Village for the first time at the weekend. And then there is the sheer excitement which needs to be kept in check.

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So a competitor as single-minded as Grainger, who has been Netball Scotland’s patron since last year, is ideally placed to help the squad stay focused.

“She’s been fantastic,” Sole said. “Obviously she’s a very experienced athlete and she’s been at the top of her game for a long time now. The sort of insight she’s been able to share with us is something you can’t really get from anyone else.

“We had a send-off with our family and friends not so long ago and she sent a personalised message which was lovely. She’s also given us an idea of what the atmosphere will be like, what we need to use as anchors to focus on our netball and our performance. She’s been fantastic and it’s great to have her involved.

“She’s been along to a couple of events. She didn’t bring the best shoes, to be honest, so the next time we’ll have to get her some good netball trainers before she makes an impact on court! But she has the height, so she has a chance – we could make a netballer of her yet!

“On Sunday we had our first visit to the village and the excitement was electric from us just walking around. We found a salon, barbecues, smoothie bars, ice baths – the facilities are second to none. We’ve never experienced anything like that and that was with it virtually empty.

“So it’s good to have someone like Katherine to remind us that, for all we have to try to enjoy these things, we are going there to do a job. When it comes to business time you need to focus on what you have to do. It’s good to have that anchor and have key messages to keep you grounded.”

Of course, another key influence for Sole, both sporting and personal, has been her father David, who as Scotland rugby captain led his team to the 1990 Grand Slam. As in the case of Grainger, there may be no direct link between what happens on a rugby pitch and events on the netball court, but Sole senior’s knack of thriving in pressurised situations has been just one lesson he has passed down to his daughter.

“Dad’s never been one to tell me what to do, but he’s always offered great support whenever I’ve needed it,” Gemma explained.

“He’s been there in the background and if I ever felt certain insecurities he’s always told me to be confident in my abilities as an athlete and ours as a team. That kind of unwavering support has helped me throughout my career, coming back from injuries or deselection for certain matches.

“That’s helped me stick in and push myself to make this squad and hopefully put in good performances at the Games. One of the key learning points is to try to turn things into a positive.

“So if I’m in a high-pressure situation I have to tell myself I love the pressure! And then it becomes something fun and you forget the negatives.”

The other members of the Sole family will also be there to support the Thistles as they aim to continue their climb up the world rankings, starting next Friday with their first pool game, against Saint Lucia. “We’ve just moved up from 12th to 11th in the world, but we’re still looking to improve on that. A top-eight finish would be great for us. That’s what we’re aiming for, so anything above that would be an absolute bonus.

“The crowds will be a huge support for us. We have a fantastic following with the Thistle Army who have their uniforms. My family have gone and ordered custom-made Saltire blazers that they’re all going to be sporting. This was my mum’s idea as she’s very into her kit. So my three brothers and my mum and dad will all be in them. They’ll certainly stand out.

“The netball crowds are fantastic and at the World Cup qualifiers in Cardiff there was a coachload that came down. They were only about a quarter of the crowd but they made so much more noise. That was phenomenal. I can’t even imagine what it will be like with 3,000 of them – we won’t be able to hear each other! It will be great.”