Katherine Grainger with her gold medal

Me by Dame Katherine Grainger

Dame Katherine Grainger (MPhil 2001) is Britain’s most decorated female Olympian, amassing five medals in rowing at five Games, including gold at London 2012. She is also a six-time rowing World Champion and current Chair of UK Sport. In June, she succeeded Professor Sir Kenneth Calman as University Chancellor.

What do you think you will bring to the role of Chancellor?
I think what links all Chancellors is pride in the role and a huge love and respect for the University. We all face different things in our tenure and the time that you’re in the role will reflect what you do and where your focus is. The important thing is that by the time you leave, you leave it in a better place.

The start of your term has been like no other in our history because of the pandemic. How have the last few months impacted on you?
I don’t normally spend much of my life at a desk, doing video calls; now I feel this takes up all of my waking moments! I wasn’t able to see my family for many months. But I’ve got good friends nearby, so even when lockdown was at its worst I could still get outside for some fresh air and see people from a distance. There’s lots I miss, but I’m always aware there are many people a lot worse off. 

You’ve recently added your voice in support of Black Lives Matter. Do you think the University needs to be doing more, and if so, what?
It’s the question we should all be asking ourselves: are we doing enough? I think the reaction from the University to address the challenges has been incredibly positive, but I don’t think anyone will ever say they’re doing enough until a lot has changed. What you want to feel is that the momentum is continuing.

Why did you choose UofG for your postgraduate degree?
I was born and bred in Glasgow, so I’ve always had a strong affinity with the city. The University has an incredible reputation, as did the course I wanted to do, so it was a combination of factors that brought me home.

What kind of student were you? Head in the books or down the union?
I learned that you have to work hard and play hard. I wanted to get my degree, so I wasn’t a stranger at the library, but I wasn’t there all the time. I was definitely down the union at times. I was a QM-er, though I’ve heard you can join both these days. I guess I wanted to do everything. I fitted in the social life, the work life and also the sporting life, so I think I would say I made the most of my time at university.

"Your ambitions should always keep expanding. I’m pretty certain I’ll get to the end of my tenure as Chancellor and feel, ‘Oh, I need a bit more time’.

What’s your most treasured possession?
I had a brilliant art teacher at school who took karate at lunchtimes, and he made it intensely challenging, but still great fun. Just before I left, I got my black belt. I took a little thank-you note to him and he presented me with the first black belt he ever got. He was by that point a 7th dan, a very high level. Then in the run-up to London 2012, I did a leg of the Olympic torch relay in Glasgow and got to choose someone to do it with me, so I chose my art teacher. He gave me his black belt and I got to give him an Olympic torch.

Where’s your favourite place in the world?
I adore being on safari in southern Africa, in South Africa, Botswana or Namibia. I’m not generally very patient, but on safari you have to sit, wait and watch and things are out of your hands. If you’re lucky, a herd of elephants will come through the bushes or lions will come to drink. I love being there and switch off completely.

How would you spend the perfect day?
It would start at the beach, with some “perfect” dogs. The kind that run and then come back! I’d meet with friends for brunch, my favourite meal of the day, when you start in the morning and then ten coffees later, you’re still chatting. In the evening, I’d see my family for a big dinner. Lots of nice wine and food, chatting, playing games, and then maybe a late-night film together.

An Olympian by degrees

I was lucky in that I found two quite different things in my life that I was very passionate about – law and rowing. I wanted to find a way to do both. If you’re lucky enough to find things that really inspire you, then you should go with it.

Professor Sheila McLean led the course in Medical Law & Ethics I did for my MPhil. She was always in the news at the time, discussing some amazing new area of law. As medicine and science develop, law has to try and keep pace. Doing the Masters was probably my favourite time studying.

My first time rowing at university (in Edinburgh), I sat in the boat, the coach came up and said, “Right, everyone, I want you all to slide forward and square your blade.” I thought, I don’t know how to “square” anything. I don’t know what a “blade” is. It was just a different language to me. I loved it early on, but I wasn’t an overnight natural talent. I took a while to be good at it.

We got the first UK Olympic medal for women’s rowing at my first Games, Sydney 2000 – that was a turning point. Then at the 2003 World Championships in Milan, we’d had one of these weeks where everything that could have gone wrong did. We got blown off the course with gale-force winds, our boat got damaged, I got injured. Disaster after disaster. But then we went out and won the final, our first world title. It was a lovely lesson that everything can go wrong and you can still deliver. But nothing will ever top London 2012. That is proper dream-come-true stuff. How lucky am I to get that?

"The high of 2012 was so good that it was almost hard to get back to reality after that. But nothing sobers you up quite like trying to finish a PhD.

Taking part in the Olympics is the pinnacle; the ultimate. This incredible team comes together once every four years, and every nation is peaking for this one thing. In my very first opening ceremony, I suddenly realised the scale of the event and how historic it is, going back to ancient Greek times. You feel you’re a tiny part of this unbelievable event going on around you.

I don’t get to row often enough these days. I’m in a group that all used to row internationally and we get out on the water when we can. We try and pretend we’re not competitive any more, but it’s the biggest lie, because as soon as another boat comes near us, that instinct is still so strong, and the racing beasts come out!

Katherine is looking forward to getting back in a boat once the pandemic is over. She aims to put her “obsessive” study of criminal law to good use at some point by writing fiction, and also hopes to learn to play the saxophone that’s been sitting in her cupboard for nearly ten years, still waiting for the right time.

This article was first published September 2020.