Kindred spirits crave gold after Grainger's silver pain
As befits an island race, the British are vesting their biggest hopes for their home Olympics in the water. Visiting opponents will find rowing and sailing, much the biggest vessels for Lottery revenue, resourced on a quite frightening scale – and that applies, in the former case, as much to muscle and sinew as funds and infrastructure.
One after another, the towering figures arrived at the Eton Dorney press morning this week, glossy with vigour and confidence, their shades slicked atop their heads. If Redgrave and Pinsent made a breakthrough in popular culture – and remember that their gold at Atlanta, in 1996, not only preceded this massive injection of funding, but also redeemed Britain's Olympic nadir – then their heirs appear eligible for a legacy that has been enriched in every sense. Indeed, David Tanner candidly salutes this as "no question" the best British team ever sent into an international regatta. After winning two in Beijing, the head of performance is targeting gold medals in as many as half a dozen disciplines.
None seems so tangibly within reach as that beckoning Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins in the women's double scull. Undefeated since being paired together in 2010, including in all three World Cup events this summer, they have discovered a powerful empathy in and out of the water.
At 36, moreover, Grainger is craving a first gold to seal the most decorated career of any British oarswoman – including Olympic silvers at Sydney, Athens and Beijing. The animated, engaging Scot has revelled in the partnership she has forged since her tearful near miss in China. "Yes, physically we're well-matched," she said of Watkins.
"But also mentally, and technically, and how we think about racing, how we feel the boat, what our standards are. So we didn't need a lot of bedding in, or communication – we're both incredibly competitive and passionate.
"We do come at things differently. Anna very much understands the mechanics of the boat, the mathematics, and she'll really analyse the numbers and bring out things I would never have thought. And that matches with how I do things, more on instinct.
"Anna does have a great feel for the boat, as well, but matches it with her knowledge. We come at any problems from different aspects, but solve them in the same way."
In what must be one of the most cerebral partnerships of this Hellenic carnival, their different strengths are reflected in their respective choice of doctorates. Watkins, who studied natural sciences at Cambridge, is now working towards a PhD in numerical analysis. Grainger, stimulated by judgement sooner than calculation, is engaged on a thesis on the ethics of criminal law at King's College, London.
But the partnership is primarily founded on emotional intelligence. They room together in the camp, and intuitively sense any shift in the pulse. "We'll have our moments," Grainger said. "When you know someone very well, you can acknowledge from a look or a smile, we'll be honest, that says: 'I feel like hell right now, I'd rather be anywhere else.' We can admit that, and still go: 'But do you know what, it's going to be great'."
Grainger is unabashed, and unequivocal, in accepting only one result will satisfy her now. Every congratulation she received for her Beijing silver felt like "another twist of the knife".
She finds corresponding fortitude, then, in a relationship so comfortable that Watkins, 29, always needs a little time to adjust when returning to her husband. On the lake, it is two women contra mundum. "We won't need to say anything," Grainger predicts. "It will just be a look." Though no British female has won a rowing gold, Grainger and Watkins could conceivably be beaten to the landmark, in the pairs two days before their own final, by Helen Glover and Heather Stanning. The latter is a captain in the Royal Artillery; the former has only been rowing five years.
The men, then, will be looking to their laurels. The four, seeking a fourth consecutive British gold, seem poised for an epic showdown with Australia – who, according to their talisman and triple gold medallist, Drew Ginn, "scared the hell" out of the British at Munich last month. "We're going to turn it into a drag race," Ginn vows. "If they want to win a gold they have to row as if their lives depend on it. We're not scared to hurt ourselves."
He also predicts home advantage could turn into pressure, and mistakes. Tom James, for Britain, disagrees: "When we've spoken to people they don't say: 'You've got to win.' They say: 'Do your best.' And that's the approach we're going to take." Nonetheless, there was a frisson of anxiety when James missed training on Wednesday, with an elevated heart rate. Last winter he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, now managed by medication, but Tanner stressed James was feeling "absolutely tops" by Thursday.
The lightweight men's four have an Ashes rivalry of their own, after stunning Australia's world champions in Munich, and then there is the eight itself – a likeable blend of characters as diverse as Greg Searle, at 40 seeking a second gold to the one he won way back in 1992; Constantine Louloudis, half his age, who started rowing on this same lake as an Etonian five years ago, and is taking a year out of his Classics degree in Oxford; and Mohamed Sbihi, a 6ft 8in giant talented-spotted as a comprehensive schoolboy, and the first practising Muslim to row for Britain.
Not one of the American eight, meanwhile, has graduated from an Ivy League school. But perhaps nothing is better calculated to dismantle barriers around what was long perceived as an elitist sport than the new overhead camera, which Tanner predicts will take the experience into "a different realm". Extending either end of the 2,000-metre course, it is the longest cable camera on the planet and will be suspended just eight metres above the agonised athletes as the pain kicks in at halfway.
They will all be facing backwards, of course. But that suits the hosts just fine. Under Jürgen Grobler, coach since the emergence of Pinsent, history is on their side.
Triple threat: Three to watch today
Women's Pair Heat one (heats start 9.30am)
The very first race of the Olympic regatta features genuine home gold prospects in Helen Glover and Heather Stanning. Glover, a PE teacher from Cornwall, was picked out in UK Sport's Sporting Giants scheme, which tested thousands of youngsters for an aptitude in rowing, handball or volleyball. Stanning is an army captain, trained at Sandhurst and West Point.
Lightweight Men's Four Heat two (heats start 11am)
Great Britain beat the world champions, Australia, in their last big regatta at Munich last month – and Australia start their challenge from the same heat. The home crew includes Peter and Richard Chambers, from Coleraine in Ulster, the first brothers to row together in a senior British team since Greg and Jonny Searle won gold at Barcelona in 1992.
Men's Single Sculls Heat 4 (heats start 12.30am)
Mahe Drysdale says he would swap all five of his world titles for one Olympic gold. He suffered heartbreak in Beijing, suddenly losing weight, sleep and energy to a gastrointestinal infection, and fading into bronze despite a heroic effort – promptly throwing up into the water. Though recovering this time from a bike accident, Drysdale has unfinished business.
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