Kath and Cath add the brains to raw power

Andrew Longmore finds Britain matching like with like on the water
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The Independent Online

The teapot has been carbon-dated to the Crimean War, the kitchen is, in estate-agent speak, cosy and the weatherboarding has not seen a coat of paint since Steve Redgrave began his apprenticeship here 20 years ago. Rowing may be on a floodtide of success, but it has not yet washed over the dilapidated charm of the Marlow Rowing Club.

One perched on the draining board, the other on one of the two utilitarian chairs, Kath and Cath bring some heavyweight intellect to bear on a discussion of England's victory over Greece. With two Bachelor's degrees, two MPhils and a doctorate in German literature between them, the pairing of Katherine Grainger and Dr Cath Bishop is academically the most qualified in world rowing and, with a black belt in karate (Grainger) and Grade Eight piano (Bishop), quite possibly the most versatile. The more pertinent question concerns their power on the waters of Seville in the second round of the rowing World Cup next week.

The early signs are promising. The new pair's natural speed was confirmed last month in Essen when, in their first competitive international outing, they followed up a second place on the Saturday with a confident victory the following day, the only one by a British crew. Seville will be a more stringent test, but there is no doubting the raw potential of the pair who, for all their similarities ­ same month of birth, same middle name, same thrusting ambitions, same tenacity, same love of life ­ are divided by one fundamental difference.

While Grainger returned from the Olympics to a whirligig of celebrity after winning silver in the quadruple sculls, the first Olympic medal for a British women's crew, the very mention of Sydney undams a torrent of emotional flotsam in Bishop. "Anger, frustration," she says. "It was horrendous, the worst regatta I've ever had in my life. It seemed that the harder we tried, the worse it got. By the end of it, I was exhausted, destroyed."

Bishop and Dot Blackie, world championship silver medallists and World Cup winners two years before, finished ninth overall. Losing is draining at the best of times, but losing in the middle of British rowing's finest hour only multiplied the isolation. Strangely, on the Monday morning after her own silver medal, gained only after an 11-minute wait for the judge's verdict, Grainger was feeling equally lost.

"I woke up and was looking out of the window at the view of the stadium wondering what to do. I thought, 'I've got this medal, now what?' Then Cath knocked on the door and said, 'Come on, we're going out'. We went shopping and had a drink that night. I think we both needed therapy."

Yet it was not until well into February that the pair managed to engineer themselves into a pair. By then, Bishop had done some teaching, com-pleted her doctorate and found that the desire to complete unfinished business on the water had largely overcome her disillusion, and Grainger had decided that opening local fêtes was not a lifetime career.

United for the British trials in April, Bishop and Grainger provided emphatic and timely proof of their ability to the new coaching team of Marty Aitken and the Australian Paul Thompson, with a performance no less dominant than that of Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell, the flagship boat of the men's squad. Though Bishop knows only too well how quickly form can evaporate, the signposts are already pointing towards Athens.

"Straight from our first outing, we felt pretty comfortable," says Bishop. "There's a mutual trust between us already. We've watched each other race, so we know neither of us will be backing off, and we feel we have greater power than anyone in this country and quite possibly the world. But Athens is a long way away, we have to be aggressive and go out and do it."

They are certainly relaxed in each other's company. Grain-ger, who was brought up in Glasgow, but learnt to row at Edinburgh University, is, at 25, four years the junior. Bishop began rowing at Cambridge before being selected for the British women's eight which won the B final at the Atlanta Olympics. She rowed twice in the women's Boat Race, winning once and losing once, but can recall only the defeat. Neither have that many rowing miles on the clock, and there is an infectious, bubbling, almost naïve enthusiasm about their infant partnership which bodes well for the future.

No one in Grainger's company for more than a few minutes will go short of laughter. Her account of the last 100 metres of the final in Sydney, a whirl of instruction, counter-instruction and chaos, is turning into a classic. "It was just blood, guts and passion," she says.

Bishop has heard it all before and it still hurts. "I want what she has, a medal," she says. "Except in gold."