Sir John Major watched the latest and greatest chapter in Katherine Grainger’s great Olympic adventure and reacted to her success with an air of giddiness that was, frankly, unbecoming of a man cast in grey his whole political life.
“Absolutely sensational,” chirped Sir John. “A day of sporting drama. The whole country would have been devastated had she not won gold this time. The whole country was waiting for that result. This is very special. I’m blown away.”
John Major was blown away. Truly this was a unique day. “My goodness,” he added. “The Australians pushed them hard. The sheer courage! You could see them dig in. For a few moments one was worried, but only for a few moments. We’d have been in mourning had she not won. There will be kids watching that and thinking, ‘Can I be like Katherine Grainger one day?’ And I certainly hope they will be. It’s tremendous.”
Major was thrilled, no question. Not that he was alone in that. There were 30,000 people just like him; 30,000 who revelled in the moment when Grainger’s run of silver, silver, silver was finally interrupted by gold.
Was there a soul who didn’t know her story before this final? Was there anyone who wasn’t aware of her epic pursuit of gold? Try as she did to bring her partner, Watkins, to the fore, the romance of the day began and ended with the Scot. That was the great narrative; the reason we were here.
The agony and ecstasy of the Games were rarely more visible than in the minutes after Grainger and Anna Watkins crossed the line after winning the double sculls. Joy unconfined in the grandstands. Untrammelled emotion in the boat. As Grainger made her way from the water to dry land she collapsed into an embrace from Sir Steve Redgrave. “The story of the Olympics so far,” said the great man. And nobody along the banks of Dorney Lake was of a mind to disagree. What an odyssey. What an endgame.
As the celebrations broke out there was a kerfuffle on the shore line. A Polish bronze-medallist, so utterly spent from the effort it took to get it, had been helped from her boat only to fall to the floor with exhaustion. As Grainger was accepting the acclaim of the masses, the medics tended to Magdalena Fularczyk, taking her away in a wheelchair. Happily, she recovered soon after, took her place on the podium and smiled. She had suffered, though. Physical torture. It’s the way of things here.
For Grainger, at last, the pain brought the ultimate reward and the greatest reaction. An hour after the race, a little girl, clutching a homemade flag with the words ‘Go Anna and Katherine’ written on it in her own hand stood by the area reserved for the rowers. Grainger spotted the child and went to see her.
The flag was a present and the Scot seemed touched. ‘Oh thank you!’ she beamed. The girl’s face was a picture of joy. She watched as Grainger and Watkins posed for a picture with her flag, then skipped to her parents saying, ‘I did it, I did it’ as she went.
She did – and so did they; Grainger and Watkins, unbeaten and unbeatable. Was this their most devastating performance? No. Was it their quickest time, their most technically accomplished race? No, again. But none of that mattered when they hung gold around their necks. They’ve gone quicker and they’ve rowed better, but all those other races will not be remembered whereas this one will never be forgotten. In just under seven minutes, a dozen years of waiting came to an end.
On the podium , the job of presenting the medals fell to Sir Craig Reedie of the IOC but, yesterday, of nowhere else but Scotland. Reedie was on duty in Beijing, too. It was he who gave Grainger the silver medal that has spent much of its time in the intervening four years sitting in a drawer at home, largely untouched and unloved, a reminder of the most painful day of her career.
“After Beijing, Katherine had to reorganise her rowing life, to go into the sculls and then find a good partner and be the best in the world,” said Reedie. “And to win now is just terrific. For me, Katherine’s is the medal of the Games. This is a girl who has won three consecutive silvers and the effort that goes into being that good for that long and then to do it all again and win it at her own Games is fantastic. These are hugely emotional moments for the athletes. I just asked her (on the podium) if we could take this date out of our diaries in Rio in 2016 and she laughed, which is fine and then I said: ‘Go and be famous’. She’s a star lady.”
Fame? She doesn’t strike you as the kind of woman who would go in search of such a thing. Adventure, yes. A pursuit of knowledge, for sure. Days and nights researching criminology for her soon-to-be-finished PhD, definitely. But fame?
But then what do we know? In our search for a better understanding of the making of Katherine Grainger, who better to ask than the people who brought her into the world. “There would have been a sense of a career unfulfilled,” said her father, Peter, when asked about the doomsday scenario of another silver. “She is such an intense competitor that first is the only thing good enough. She has a sister 16 months older and anything Sarah did Katherine had to try and do – from crawling onwards. She is intensely competitive.”
And now her mum, Liz. “I started crying during the race, then stopped before the national anthem but then that started me off again,” she said. “I always had utter faith in her. I was very nervous in Beijing, but this morning I knew it was her moment. It hasn’t sunk in yet she is an Olympic champions, that will come.
“It’s a huge, huge sense of pride and relief. We can tick it off. She’s got that (gold medal) now and hopefully we can get on with life. I hope she has a fantastic future in something. We have no idea what it will be, but she will always be good. She’s an impressive person. But I’m her mother. She pays me to say these things.”
Mum says bring on the Rio Games in four years’ time; daughter says she’s heard what mum’s been saying and says she’ll be having words with her later. To be among them was to see a family coming together after a long road. This wasn’t just her gold, said Grainger. A piece of it belongs to all those who helped her along the way; her parents, her siblings, her coaches, Watkins and all the throngs who roared them home.
Seconds after crossing the line, they sat in the boat in disbelief. “I had to ask Katherine if it was a dream because I’d tried to keep my mind away from this moment,” said Watkins. Was it a dream? Of course it was. For sometimes dreams come true.