DORNEY, England (Reuters) - After the despair of a third straight Olympic silver at the last Games in Beijing, Britain’s Katherine Grainger was struggling to keep the smile from her face and the excitement from her mind after setting an Olympic best time in her heat on Monday.
Grainger believed she was finally going to land gold in 2008, only to see a Chinese crew row through her women’s quad in the final metres of the race.
The sight of the team crying through the medal ceremony became one of the abiding images of the Beijing Games, and the experience left Grainger, then 32, unsure that she could commit to another four years of intensive training when she could lose it all again on the stroke of an oar.
“It took a long, long time to really come to terms with what happened in Beijing and to really feel like I could talk about it again,” she told Reuters earlier this year. “It was a painful experience but we all did a lot of learning.
“It’s part of my history, I use it in a very positive way but I don’t dwell on it at all.”
Having decided to give it another go, the Scot first raced in the single sculls, then teamed up with Anna Watkins in a double that is still unbeaten.
On Monday they won their heat by clear water, yelled on by the 25,000 mostly British crowd, who would like to see her win more than any other. She and Watkins will start the final on Friday as clear favorites.
“I think I will be exploding on Friday if it goes well,” she said after her race. “This has got to be one of the best days I have ever experienced in rowing and it is only a heat. For the final it is about containing that. Our biggest threat is letting that excitement affect how we row.”
While Britain is one of the strongest nations in men’s rowing, the silver won by Grainger’s quad boat in 2000 in Sydney was the first rowing medal of any color won by Britain’s women.
Grainger’s attempt to keep a cool head is understandable, but the PhD student in homicide may need to relay that to Watkins, who appears to be forever smiling.
The six-foot blonde was positively fizzing and jumping up and down after coming off the water. “It’s absolutely addictive,” she told reporters. “I can see why people like being footballers, that’s what we felt like today.
“You feel like you’re rowing in a stadium. We’ve always been jealous of the athletics people who get to compete in a stadium, but that’s what it feels like here. And you wave at the crowd and they cheer again.”
The double world champions pulled out to an early lead on Dorney Lake on Monday, then controlled the race before finishing in a new Olympic best time of six minutes 44.33 seconds.
Their strongest opposition will most likely come from the Australian double of Kim Crow and Brooke Pratley, who were about four seconds slower in winning their heat.
If the British duo need help in keeping their feet on the ground, they need look no further than Grainger’s close friend and ‘supporter in chief’, Steve Redgrave, the five-times Olympic champion, who Grainger describes as “rock steady”.
“He’s not getting too excited, he’s very much ‘You’ve got a job to do’,” she said. “He’s like ‘It’s all there but you need to get back to making sure that that day happens rather than celebrating this too much’.”
Editing by Kevin Liffey