ABSOLUTELY the first imperative is that everyone remembers to look upon this beaming, beatific champion and say: “Jolly well done, Anna Watkins!” It is her alchemy, after all, that has finally turned silver into gold. And it was instructive of the charm that has compounded Katherine Grainger’s status, as darling of this regatta, that the glory they shared here yesterday was as much a matter of parity as synchronicity. Reciprocally, however, Watkins will understand if Grainger, having at last requited a 12-year craving, is widely saluted as first among equals.
Four years ago, the Scot struggled to stifle tears of disappointment in receiving her third consecutive Olympic silver. The first, at Sydney in 2000, had been a source of amazed rapture; the second, at Athens, suitably gratifying; in Beijing, however, her quadruple was preceded by nearly universal predictions of success.
Yet the memory of a stunning Chinese ambush that day had done little to discourage still greater expectation on home waters. Since teaming up with Watkins in double sculls, Grainger had not tasted defeat in 21 races. And the way she relieved this exorbitant burden, in the 22nd, served not only to gladden hearts – under many different flags – but also as a magnificent reproof to any offensive insinuation that three Olympic silvers could ever qualify anyone as a serial loser.
For the ceremonial quality of her coronation, at 36, extended from the ruthless superiority she shared with Watkins to the moment she humbly bowed her head to receive gold at last. Yes, perhaps there was a slight quivering of the lower lip as the Union flag rose rippling into the sun, and the galleries bellowed the anthem. Essentially, however, there had been none of the histrionic relief by which many others, literally in the same boat, might have betrayed either incredulity or some aggrieved sense of entitlement. Her features were instead suffused with a pure and infectious delight, sustained by a composure that confirmed Grainger – already, before these Games, Britain’s most decorated female rower – as a natural born winner.
Among her compatriots, this dignity will perhaps gain her as many admirers as the excellence she manifested in exorcising Beijing. They led throughout, gradually stretching an advantage over the Australians in the adjacent lane, and while their pursuers hung tough in the closing 500, there was always more than a length in it. “I knew we had it won,” Watkins said later. “There was no way anything could go wrong if we stayed calm, so we had time to enjoy it.”
Not that those few seconds, for her partner, could begin to absorb so many years of yearning. It may take as many years again to do so: to review the climax of her career in more positive terms than release, relief, reprieve; or to master, conceivably, that dreadful human instinct for discovering a questioning vacuum even in satisfying so consuming an ambition. “It will take a long time to sink in,” Grainger said. “But out on that podium I think we both knew how special it was. It was the fulfilment of a lot of hard work, a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
And the one certainty now is that retirement after Beijing would have condemned her to an eternal, restless hankering. “As a person, I’d still have been secure, safe, normal – ish,” she said. “But as an athlete it would always have been the one I didn’t get. To win any Olympic medal is a phenomenal achievement in itself. But I had three that were, for me, not the right colour. And ever since Anna and I got in a boat together I knew that we had the potential to be best in the world.”
That synergy has now vindicated her decision to persevere. “I did seriously consider what to do after Beijing,” she admitted. “I think on one level, I decided very quickly. But as much as anything I needed space. It was a tough result and I wanted to make sure, if I was to carry on, that it would be for the right reasons.”
Mercilessly, if inevitably, she was already being asked the same question now. Might they defend their prize in Rio, or was its consummation also the end of the partnership? “That’s the only sad thought of the day – that it could be,” Watkins said. “But you can’t plan because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Lives change after Olympics. We’re going to give ourselves time.”
“We were both aware that August 3 was this massive day in our history, when we would have to row the race of our lives,” Grainger agreed. “There’s no way we could think beyond it. It’s been very important, the whole way through, to live in the moment.”
In embarking on the uncharted waters ahead, it is not as if either woman will be short of oars. For one thing, both have a PhD to resume: Watkins, a Cambridge graduate, in mathematics; and Grainger, in jurisprudence, with a 100,000-word thesis on the punishment of homicide.
It would be as well, perhaps, not to admit how exceptional a face these women present to a watching world. However sheepishly, the host nation can receive any flattering inferences with due pride. On the water, at least, it is not as if they represent any aberration. As soon as she left the boat, Grainger was enveloped in a long, affectionate embrace from Sir Steve Redgrave.
“He knows what it means, and he’s been a rock,” she said. “The Olympic movement has come to mean so much to me, and that’s been a massive motivating drive for many years now. With that gold proving so elusive, I knew it was going to take something very special to win one. And, out of them all, I feel this one is the people’s medal. So many people have been behind me, and supported me, and wanted this for me as much as I have.”
Of these, however, most could only be behind Grainger in a figurative sense. There was only one exception, and now she wears a gold medal of her own.