European Rowing Championships: Katherine Grainger ready for return

By Richard WintonBBC Sport
Grainger felt like 'new girl at school'
European Rowing Championships
Venue: Poznan, Poland Dates: 29-31 May
Coverage: Finals live on BBC Two (Sun, 11:30-13:50 BST), Red Button (Sun, 09:30-13:45 BST), online, mobile, BBC Sport app and Connected TV.

She was nervous about telling her mum, felt like the new girl at school on her first day back and has since endured sleepless nights fretting over her form.

But all that angst will be washed away this weekend when Katherine Grainger finally makes her competitive international rowing return.

It is almost three years since the 39-year-old last took on the world at London 2012, winning Olympic gold in the double sculls alongside Anna Watkins.

And to illustrate how much can change in that time, Watkins remains on her own sabbatical having had two children, so Grainger will be partnered in Poznan by Vicky Thornley, who had barely even been in a boat when Grainger was winning her third Olympic silver medal.

It is, then, very much a fresh start for the Scot, who looked ahead to the Europeans by speaking to BBC Sport and five-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave.

'I thought I'd know after a year'

Grainger told BBC Sport last September that she had made the "agonising decision" to end a two-year sabbatical and return to training with a view to competing in Rio.

During her first break from the sport in 15 years, the Scot concluded a PhD in homicide, wrote a book and worked with the BBC but eventually realised she still yearned for the water.

"I thought I would take a year, realistically," she told Redgrave. "I thought at the end of that I would know. But I didn't - I wasn't sure.

"I asked the team manager and coach if two years was realistic and would be allowed because I didn't want time running out to be the reason I didn't go back."

Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins
Grainger was afforded various opportunities after London, including modelling clothes with Watkins

'I was nervous telling my mum'

Grainger concedes that her parents assumed London would be a celebratory conclusion to her career, and speaks of her mother Liz's "relief" that it was over.

"So when she realised I was thinking of continuing, her initial reaction was disappointment," Grainger said.

"Of all people, I've been the most honest with her about the emotional cost of it all so when I finally made the decision to tell her properly in person I was nervous.

"But the day I went back [to training] she texted... 'I'm not sure why it took so long, it was so obviously the right decision'. That was the final seal of approval."

'You lose a bit of confidence'

GB rowing had stipulated that any athlete who wished to be considered for a place in Rio had to report for training on Tuesday, 23 September last year.

For Grainger, it was the first day back since London. "I absolutely felt like the new girl at school," she said. "You lose a bit of the confidence even though this is my natural habitat so I was more nervous than I'd ever been.

"Jess Eddie [who will compete in the women's eight in Poznan] told me before she had taken my old slot in the changing room and said that if I ever came back she'd vacate it, so I called her up the night before and said 'remember what you said... I might need it back'."

Grainger's roll of honour
Olympic gold: London 2012 (double sculls)
Olympic silver: Sydney 2000 (quad sculls), Athens 2004 (coxless pair), Beijing 2008 (quad sculls)
World champion: double sculls 2010 & 2011; quad sculls 2005, 2006 & 2007; coxless pair 2003
GB senior trials: 1st (1998, 2001, 2004-10, 12) 2nd (2011, 2015)

But while the surroundings were familiar, some of the furniture wasn't. New coaches were barking the instructions and new rowers were setting personal bests almost every day, something that - for now at least - is beyond a frustrated Grainger.

"My top scores are incredibly competitive but they're not PBs," she said, ruefully. "On bad days that negative voice in your head says 'will you ever get back there?'"

"Some days are tougher than I thought they would be because I'm physically not the athlete I was two or three years ago. Not yet.

"But mentally I have the same standards and give myself a hard time if I don't meet them, even though I know realistically I can't after just a few months back.

"I want to take huge leaps and bounds but sometimes it's just small steps."

'Vicky put me firmly in my place'

Katherine Grainger and Victoria Thornley
Grainger and Thornley will be up against 16 other boats in the women's double sculls

For the European Championships, Grainger has been paired with Vicky Thornley, who beat her in the single scull final at the GB trials in April.

Thornley, 27, had a decisive full-length lead by the halfway mark but Grainger responded to claim a "fiesty" runners-up finish.

The outcome still rankles. "I came away from it upset, frustrated, disappointed," she said.

"At 4am I was still awake thinking about it but credit to Vicky, she put me firmly in my place. It was probably a healthy test for me, mentally."

A European medal is the one prize missing from Grainger's collection, but she is optimistic that she can return from Poznan having remedied that.

"Vicky's 6ft 4in with a beautiful body - not the most obvious physical match with me - but we can make it go pretty fast," she said.

"We're bringing very different things to it and the potential is very exciting. She'll do everything and anything to make this boat right."

'Silver isn't good enough for me'

Grainger won Olympic silver in Sydney 2000 (quad sculls), Athens 2004 (coxless pair) and Beijing 2008 (quad sculls) but, having finally clambered on to the top step of the podium in London, she is determined not to hear another nation's anthem again.

"I didn't come back to finish second. I've had years of that," she said. "I was over the moon with Sydney, the second one I was still happy, but the third one was clearly quite devastating. I'm done with that.

"Silver isn't good enough for me. When you have won the Olympics you have different expectations that you have to live up to every day."

'I'd love to silence the doubters'

Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins
Grainger had won three consecutive Olympic silver medals before claiming gold with Watkins in London

Grainger is Britain's most decorated female Olympian alongside swimmer Rebecca Adlington, but no other women has won four medals over a 12-year span - never mind the five over 16 years that the Scot will be targeting in Rio.

Before then, though, comes Poznan, followed by the World Championships in France in September.

"We'd love to put a marker down and I'd love to silence all the people questioning why I came back," she said. "It would be lovely to very quickly say 'this is why'."

But what if, in Rio, she doesn't win gold? What if she doesn't win a medal of any colour?

"I wouldn't cope well," she said. "I've learned in the hardest way there are no guarantees in sport. But I survived Beijing and I know I would survive again.

"I thought about it when I was making my decision but since then I haven't considered losing an option."