"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play…it is war minus the shooting."
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Katherine Grainger, London, Andre Deutsch (Carlton), 2016. ISBN 978-0-233-00485-3When I reviewed Katherine Grainger’s book, Dreams do come true, in 2013, I wrote: “What a brilliant book! Katherine Grainger gives a gripping and fascinating insight into the world elite sport with reference to her rowing career. She conveys the emotion, the success and failures, the pressure and the ecstasy and the intensity of professional sport. She has a great gift for expressing the inexpressible”.
The 2016 book: “The autobiography” adds 65 pages to tell the compelling story of Katherine’s break after 2012 and her return to rowing and the happy ending of the Rio medal. However, the process of getting to the podium in Rio was anything but smooth and Katherine captures the emotion, warts and all, with an honesty that is in total contrast to the blandness that one finds in so many sports autobiographies.
I was very struck by how Katherine saw the journey as being almost as important as the outcome. She writes, for example, “There is something rewarding about having pushed yourself to the limit every day” and again “Sport, for me, has always been about pushing boundaries and reaching new heights”. She pointedly dismisses the idea of making sacrifices to achieve her goals – rather, she made choices.
I sort of knew that at one point Katherine and Vicky decided to give up their quest for a medal in the double and seek a seat in the eight but I had absolutely no idea of the ramifications of that decision for personal relationships within the GB rowing squad - as they were suddenly trying to unseat others and deprive them of their Olympic dream . Grainger tells that story treading a careful line between brutal honesty and respect for fellow rowers.
She shares the effect it all had on her: “I was used to being a strong, valuable and valued member of a crew and now I was nothing: unwelcome and an annoyance…[then on the day of the GB Rio team announcement] my humiliation was complete when I was asked to leave the building and then the car park at Caversham before the media arrived”.
Grainger has a way of putting the struggle and triumph into words. Here are a few examples:
“It would be the place where I would be tested more than I had ever been tested before and would get one more opportunity to find out what kind of athlete I was”.
“But those moments of doubt when the stakes feel enormously high are the furnaces where experience is created and where champions step up.”
“We were sitting on the Olympic final start line, the place that for four years motivates and inspires and pushes you through the pain and discomfort and fear and uncertainty.”
“Perhaps the fact that it is “only” sport is why it is so impressive seeing athletes commit their lives to it, risk heartbreak over and over again and then get up, dust themselves down and try once more”.
In her account of the 2016 experience she returns to a theme she has addressed earlier in the book, the delicate balance in the role of the coach between pushing the athlete to achieve more and effect on athletes of being pushed too far. Of her own experience she comments: “yet again there seemed little concern or duty of care from the management for athletes in difficult times”.
Even though I am only reviewing the last 65 pages of the book I am in danger of writing too much! Other fascinating themes in this section include: the process by which Grainger and Thornley “over-achieved” in the only race than mattered, the characteristics which separate the great from the good, the balance of the individual versus the team in the pursuit of medals and dealing with the experience of your best – which is very good – not being good enough on the world stage.
Even if you have read the 2013 book, it is worth buying the new version for the new material. Grainger, more than anyone I can think of, analyses and expresses the essence of elite competitive sport.