Fab four ready to steer Kathy home

Oarsome foursome can give Grainger a fairytale ending by winning the first women's rowing gold for GB in the quadruple sculls

For a moment, Katherine Grainger is no longer preparing for her Olympic destiny. If she closes her eyes, her alter ego is just about to make her closing argument in a hushed courtroom. She has always imagined herself playing a strong female lead. Maybe like Kelly McGillis, counsel for the victim Jodie Foster in The Accused, or Jenny Seagrove's character in Judge John Deed.

"I quite fancied walking around a courtroom. I've pictured myself making impressive speeches in court. But that's probably because I've watched far too much TV, which has given me the impression that it'd be a great thing to do," says the Scot in her mellifluous tones.

The woman who was born in Glasgow, names Aberdeen as her home town and gained a masters in law at the Universityof Edinburgh, admonishes herself. "Apparently," she adds, with self-mocking sarcasm, "it's not always like that. Which is so disappointing."

We are seated outside the gym of the Redgrave-Pinsent Rowing Lake, near Reading. Almost inevitably, given the nature of those studies, her future after Beijing has been broached. Where would she be on such a day in 2012, by then aged 36? Clad in a GB vest in readiness for London 2012? Or perhaps preparing to take silk? In fact, the rower, who is also studying for a PhD in homicide, and whose particular fascination is "psychopaths and extreme cases of murder", is adamant that decisions about the rest of her life will have to wait. For the next two weeks, her lead role will be clearly defined, and exclusive of distractions: to bring home a first women's Olympic rowing gold for Great Britain.

As the most experienced member of the GB women's quad (short for quadruple sculls) crew, who have claimed three consecutive World Champion-ships since Athens, there is, as she agrees, with a little laugh: "No pressure, then; no pressure at all!"

In truth, she relishes the demands that pressure places on her, emotionally and physically. Every part of her aching body, even after the most gruelling training session, would yearn for the experience if it wasn't there. She is a competition junkie, pure and simple. "I would sicken for the challenge if I walked away from this," she agrees. "It's the racing I love. It makes your heart pound. You really do feel alive.

"Admittedly, the day-to-day training through rain and snow isn't my favourite part of it, but I'd miss the fact that, as part of my job, I get to see if I can be best in the world. That's something most other jobs can't replace. And, of course, whenever I stop, that will be hard. I guess you have to find something that doesn't necessarily replace it but just offers something different."

She had a similar dilemma after Athens, when she and Cath Bishop finished second in the coxless pairs. For Grainger, who had also secured silver in the quad in Sydney, the moment was one of disappointment. On top of that, her friend Bishop was retiring, to become a diplomat at the Foreign Office. Grainger considered quitting too.

It's as well that she did not. Returning to the quad as stroke, she and her crewmates – Frances Houghton, Debbie Flood and Annie Vernon – won those World Championships golds (they finished second in 2006, but were subsequently named as champions when their Russian conquerors were thrown out after a failed drugs test). They are irrefutably the form crew, ready to attain their peak on finals day, 17 August.

"You always have that slight feeling, 'Will we be good enough'?" reflects Grainger, who was introduced to rowing at the University of Edinburgh's Freshers' Fair. "But what's been great is that for the last three years, we've turned up to big competitions and our best has been good enough. We've certainly never come into an Olympic Games having had a string of successes behind us as we're doing now.

"But we're not there yet, and we probably won't be there until the Olympic final. Come that day, we'll be better than we've ever been."

Their success is founded on a quartet who complement each other so well. "Fran sits behind me," explains Grainger. "She's been in that seat in the quad since 2003. She's a bit like your second-in-command when you go into battle. She's very reliable, knows exactly what she needs to do in that seat, and is willing to back you up in anything you do. Fran also brings us back to what technically we need to do. She's very good at saying, 'Come on, guys, this is how we're going to make the difference', and will constantly bring us back to what makes us go fast. You need that voice.

"Debbie sits behind Fran. Off the water, if she's not eating, she'll be sleeping. She sleeps all the time. She does the calls in the boat. She's very calm, very neutral in her attitude, and that keeps us very much on an even keel, avoiding emotional highs and lows.

"Annie's in the bow seat. She's the youngest and newest, but has never appeared to find the rest of us intimidating. She's like the conscience in the back of the boat: reminding us that we need to be doing a bit better. She's also the eyes of the boat, telling us what's going on around us."

For all her confidence, Grainger guards against being hijacked by hubris. "I guess the hard thing is that, as much as we want it and as much as it would complete the fairytale ending, that's not how you win gold. Everybody else wants it just as much. They'll have gone away and improved since we last competed. We know, when we arrive, we will look at our rivals and say to ourselves, 'Uh-oh, they look good, oh, and that crew, they look good too, oh no!' It would be nice if we had done all our hard work and nobody else had. But it won't have happened. It'll be extremely tough."

The jury is out, due to return in 14 days. Surely this time, in her third Olympics, Grainger can feel confident of a positive verdict.

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