“Champions are made when no one is watching.” This is Susanne Grainger’s favourite mantra. But when she and Team Canada women’s eight rowing team captured gold at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, everyone was watching.
“It was amazing, because after 18 years of rowing, they’ve seen all the work that has gone into it and have been a tremendous support,” said Grainger, MA’15 (American Studies), recalling how it felt to bring home the gold to her family. The Olympic medalist recently spoke with Western News about the pinnacle event and what fuels her beyond the boat.
WN: How did you get started in rowing?
Susanne Grainger: When my family moved from Florida back to Canada 18 years ago, I was quite an angsty teenager, so my parents were looking for something to help me make friends and find stability in our new country. A long-time family friend of ours, Bob Ward, was a high school rowing coach and helped with the Western rowing team. He came over for dinner, saw how tall I was and invited me to try rowing out on Fanshawe Lake. He taught me how to use a rowing machine and put me in a big single rowing tub. I’ve rowed ever since.
WN: When did the Olympics seem like a feasible feat for you?
SG: A few moments stand out. The first was when an American university saw my scores and reached out, inviting me for a visit. I had no idea I could go anywhere past high school with rowing until that point. I realized then that I had some potential and some choice in where I could go. (I earned a scholarship to the University of Virginia.)
My UVA coach referred me to the Canadian U23 national coach for their summer program. We won during my first summer with the team and I thought if I kept putting the effort in, I could maybe keep climbing that staircase.
My last year of U23 was right before I graduated and timed out perfectly for me to join the senior team and take part in my first international race. It was in Lucerne, Switzerland, on a racecourse I had dreamed of as a university athlete. We placed third and I remember walking through the boat park, looking at my medal and thinking how I had once dreamt of being inside that moment. At that point, I realized I could potentially push and progress to making the (Olympic) team.
WN: Take us back to the last 750 metres of the Olympic gold-medal race. What were you going through, mentally and physically?
SG: Rowing is a full body sport, and that 750-metre point is coined as one of the most difficult moments. You’re not quite in the last quarter of the race and there’s this overwhelming urge to stop because that’s where it really hurts and hits you.
A lot of the race is fuzzy for me, but I remember our coxswain Kristen Kit, calling our sprint. Typically, a sprint is called, at the latest, with 300 metres to go. She called it with 750 metres to go.
She asked us, “What would Kathleen Heddle do?” Kathleen is a rower who passed away earlier this year from cancer and was part of the 1992 crew who won gold in many events. It was a special moment to bring that legacy into the boat with us, especially when you’re in a hurt locker and you want to stop, and there’s such an abyss of mind games playing out. But I felt so confident in what we were doing. I knew Kristen would not lead us into any situation we couldn’t handle.
WN: What was it like bringing the gold medal home to your family?
It was amazing, because after 18 years of rowing, they’ve seen all the work that has gone into it and have been a tremendous support.
It was also exciting to hear how friends and the community surrounded my family when they couldn’t be in Tokyo. My husband watched the race by himself in Victoria (B.C.), but our landlords knocked on the door with drinks to say congratulations and to celebrate. In London, people were knocking on my parents door and the phone was ringing off the hook. It warmed my heart to know even if my family couldn’t be there, people were here for them.
WN: How did it feel to be celebrated by 1,700 Londoners in Labatt Park?
SG: The event was so meaningful because that gold medal was not just about us; it’s about Canada and the cities that have supported us. Having that celebration with the city gave us what we missed at the end of the race in Tokyo. To stand on the stage and hear everybody cheer was very special.
WN: What are your other interests?
SG: I’ve always liked to do something outside of rowing. When I lived in Ontario, I tutored children in math, science and English. It’s something I missed doing when I moved to Victoria, because it’s so different and refreshing to get your mind out of the rowing world for a while.
I enjoy learning, so last year I took some courses in human resources and labour relations because it encompassed my interests in problem solving and working with people. I also got a part-time job with CAN Fund, which supports amateur athletes like myself who train and compete for Canada. It meant a lot to give back and help a charity that made a huge difference in my own journey.
WN: As someone who’s studied human resources, can the principles that foster teamwork in the boat improve culture in the workplace?
SG: Absolutely. We worked hard on our team culture this past year, using the extra time the pandemic gave us to turn our team environment around.
The biggest things we came together on, working with our coach, Michelle Darvill, was the concept of checking your ego at the door, knowing when you’re not the expert and giving everyone a chance to be heard.
It was a huge turning point in building our communication and trust as a team. I think that’s something that can be applied to anything in life. There’s always someone who will know more than you and there’s always someone who will know less than you. And everyone brings something special to the table.
WN: Speaking of which, you’ve also started your own baking business, Sweets by Susanne. Tell us about that.
SG: Baking is another way I escape the rowing world. I enjoy seeing a photo of something and trying to recreate it. And there’s no better way to put a smile on someone’s face after a 30-kilometre row than a box of cupcakes!
This interview was edited for length and clarity.