Dame Katherine Grainger: “You never quite know what’s possible when you start off”

From being a world-beater in the boat to becoming Oxford Brookes’ Chancellor, Dame Katherine Grainger PhD is accustomed to making the most of new opportunities. That’s why we presented her with a unique task on a recent visit to the University…

You wouldn’t expect Britain’s most decorated female Olympic athlete to be daunted by three sentences written on a small piece of card. However, you sense a little unease in the voice of Oxford Brookes’ Chancellor as she reads out the task we have set for her in one of the University’s art rooms.

“Your challenge is to draw the bowl of fruit you see in front of you using the materials provided. You then have to decide between yourselves which of the efforts is the masterpiece and which needs to go back to the drawing board. You have 20 minutes starting from now…” Katherine immediately turns to Elena Saldana-Quintans ‘15, Brookes Union President for 2016/17, and, for the next 20 minutes, her fellow artist.

Katherine: “Can you draw?”
Elena: “No, I cannot draw. Seriously.”
Katherine: “OK let me get my charcoal out. Why not? Why not!”

Given her remarkable achievements in sport, Katherine’s desire to succeed is unsurprisingly brought to the fore. “If you’ve got a better angle I’m going to be jealous of you” she remarks. “I think yours is easier – it’s very different from over here.”

“I wish I wasn’t competitive at this point”, she adds. “I’ve suddenly gone all panicky about a pear. I can do the Olympics but apparently a pear is throwing me completely!”

Within moments however, Katherine is putting charcoal to paper and discussing her remarkable career to date, her love of academia and the importance of staying connected with where you studied.

It is of course Katherine’s achievements in the rowing boat for which she is best known. 

It is of course Katherine’s achievements in the rowing boat for which she is best known. This includes her famous gold medal success at London 2012, silver medals from Rio in 2016, Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, as well as the six world championship titles in her collection.

Katherine is now embarking on her next chapter and became the Chair of UK Sport in July 2017. As the high profile and hugely successful body tasked with investing National Lottery and Government money into UK Olympic and Paralympic sports, this is an area Katherine knows well but which will also present fresh challenges.

Having been made a Dame by the Queen in 2017 and taken on the responsibilities of being Oxford Brookes’ Chancellor in the last two years, life has been extremely busy. With our interview taking place just before the UK Sport announcement, Katherine admits she has faced a period of re-prioritising since retiring from rowing.

Katherine’s inauguration as Chancellor in 2015
Katherine’s inauguration as Chancellor in 2015

“What I do miss now is the challenge. I’m very busy and I do lots but I do [miss that] I have to admit after 20 years of pursuing challenges. I think you’ve got to know yourself well. Know what you get energy from and what takes away your energy.”

As well as being the first British woman to win medals at five successive Olympics, Katherine also had the energy and drive to balance being an elite athlete with academia. It’s difficult to fathom how she was able to complete a PhD at King’s College London, focused on the implications of whole-life prison sentences, alongside the pressures and commitments of life with British Rowing.

“Where I was lucky was I found two things that I just loved that were really, really important to me and I really wanted to do them both. I think if you’re going to take on a massive challenge, like trying to row for the Olympics say – if you’re mad enough to do that – plus a degree, or even more than one, you have to be very honest with yourself about why you want to do it and what you’re willing to do to get that right. There were lots of times where I didn’t think I was being good to either of them,” she recalls.

“My PhD supervisor actually said at one point ‘Maybe we should just give up,” which I only found out later she was doing deliberately to test me. I rose to that challenge easily – I’m such a sucker! Someone says ‘Oh you can’t do that,’ and I say ‘Oh I can. I’ll prove you wrong.’”

Katherine actually found that balancing studying and her career was mutually beneficial.

“Ultimately, it was hard. I’m not saying it was easy. But I think they helped each other. When I got a bit too stressed about rowing, I quite enjoyed doing my PhD and being distracted by that. And when I got too stressed about doing my PhD, I could just get in a boat and find a distraction there.”

It’s at this point that our budding artists are told that they have just five minutes left.

“No pressure”, Elena dead-pans. “No”, Katherine responds. “Laugh in the face of pressure, seriously. Although I’m stunned at how bad my bananas are!”

With time fast running out, the conversation turns to how important Katherine feels it is to stay in touch with the three universities at which she has studied. With typical enthusiasm, she declares: “I love it. I absolutely adored my time at university and all three of them were different experiences. I have really fantastic friendships which just keep me going back.”

“We’re all over the country now, and some are in different countries doing different things, but everyone really makes an effort to go back and it’s just such a wonderful thing to be part of. You get a lot from it and everyone benefits from that connection but it’s also lovely to think that you can give something back. That you can actually support [the university], new students or projects – that’s really fantastic.”

It’s the link between graduates and current students which Katherine keeps returning to.

“I think there’s something incredible if you go and back and say, ‘I sat in these lecture halls and I was taught by the same professors and lecturers’. People go on to do the most incredible things in different ways, whether you go back to different countries, different cities or different jobs.

“It’s lovely for students to know all that’s possible. You never quite know what’s possible when you start off.”

It’s at this point that the buzzer sounds and both the charcoal drawing and interview come to a close. All that’s left is for Katherine and Elena to stand back and talk about their works of art, with Elena calling Katherine’s piece “incredible”.

“It’s not incredible, don’t be ridiculous,” Katherine replies. “You’re being very nice – I’m not used to being coached like this. I’m used to ‘That’s not good enough! That’s not good enough!’”

The early competitiveness seems to have faded as Katherine looks at both easels. “I don’t know if we should have a winner. Art is the winner today. Art won!” The art challenge may be over, but Katherine is now embarking on her next test in life.

Having had an insight into what inspires her and how she inspires others, you’re left in no doubt Katherine will continue to succeed in all she does.

Top photograph by Paul Tait

Artist Saad Qureshi ’07 has exhibited in New York and London. His latest work – Assembly – is a commission for our Headington Campus.
Find out more »