6 Feb 2012

The Olympics, x-factor and studying psychopaths

Olympic rower Katherine Grainger talks to Channel 4 News about her PhD, potential parallels between psychopaths and sports stars, and why she hopes the x-factor will bring her gold in 2012.

Triple Olympic medallist Katherine Grainger (Getty)

“I’m Katherine Grainger from the Great Britain rowing team.

“This will be my fourth Olympic Games in London, I’ve got three Olympic silver medals so clearly rather than having a fourth to complete the collection, I’d quite like a gold one now.”

The words of Britain’s most successful female rower when asked to introduce herself on camera.

The 36-year-old is going for gold at London 2012 along with rowing partner Anna Watkins. The pair are so far unbeaten.

What Katherine Grainger failed to mention is that she is also studying for a PhD – in homicide.

Read more: How many Paralympic athletes can you name?


For most athletes training for the Olympics is a full-time occupation.

Katherine’s schedule is intense: up to two hours on the water every morning followed by a session on the rowing machine, then in the afternoon back into the gym for a weights work-out.

Before, in-between and after the physical training, there are meetings with coaches, video feedback sessions and appointments with physiologists, psychologists and nutritionists.

So why study for a PhD while aiming for gold in London 2012?

Katherine, who studied law at university, told Channel 4 News she has always wanted to find time to do something else: “I like to challenge myself on the mental side as well and I find the stuff I’m studying fascinating.”

She added: “If I don’t have a lot to do, then I can waste time like the best of us… if I’ve got my PhD to do, rowing to do, training to do and people to speak to then I’ll get it all done.”

After her undergraduate degree, Katherine went on to a masters in medical law and ethics which she describes as “fascinating”. Her dissertation was based on the mental health of psychopaths which lead to her choice of doctorate.

When our boat works and it flies, it’s the only place I want to be. Katherine Grainger

“It’s not the lighest of reading matter of an afternoon but it is a lot about human behaviour, whether on the criminal side or society’s side in their reaction to things at an absolute extreme end.

“In some ways I probably work (row) at the extreme end of human behaviour anyway – there are some parallels potentially but I consider it very different from sport.”

‘Really horrible’ training sessions

It may sound radical to suggest there are “potential parrallels” between the extreme behaviour of psychopaths and the extreme behavious of top sports stars, but the pain Olympic rowers put themselves through is beyond most people’s understanding.

Katherine describes the rowing machine sessions as “really, really horrible”.

Her GB teamate, Olympic champion Zac Purchase, goes further: “You start to lose your peripheral vision, you start getting stars coming into your eyes ’cause you’re running out of blood supply.

“Your lungs are hanging out of your mouth absolutely burning, the taste of blood’s in the back of your throat. It’s a horrible, horrible experience.”

But top rowers accept that is what you need to do to win gold medals at the Olympics.

And Katherine, in her own words, “would quite like a gold medal” after three silvers.

She describes her rowing partnership with Anna Watkins as special: “I think there’s a little bit of the x-factor, there’s a little bit of magic and I wouldn’t be able to explain entirely why it works so well and part of me doesn’t want to.

“It just is special and I don’t think we should analyse it too much.

“When our boat works and it flies, it’s the only place I want to be.”

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