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Katherine Grainger only behind Steve Redgrave in GB rowing greats

Nick Potts/PA Wire

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Katherine Grainger is undoubtedly a fantastic Olympian, you don't win medals in five successive Games unless you are a special athlete.

But what place she takes in the pantheon of British sporting heroes, and indeed among the world's most impressive achievers, is hard to call. How, exactly, do you measure Olympic greatness?

That question arose in the aftermath of Grainger's latest success, her silver-medal winning run in the women's double sculls with Victoria Thornley.

The victory brought her a medal for the fifth successive Games, four of them silver and a gold from London 2012. At the age of 40, it also brought a commitment to finally quit competitive rowing and the admiration of many.

Grainger has overtaken swimmer Rebecca Adlington in the medal count to claim the title of most decorated female British Olympian of the modern era. But Team GB were slightly embarrassed to find out after declaring her outright all-time leader that tennis player Kitty Godfree also won five medals in the 1920s.

The owner of a PHD in criminology and current chancellor of Oxford Brookes University could claim a better record as Godfree has two bronzes among her tally, to go with two silvers and a gold. Their claims to the title, however, may well be debated until another woman wins six medals.

Grainger will inevitably be mentioned in dispatches with another Briton, too: five-time Olympic gold medal-winning rower, and single bronze-medal holder Steve Redgrave, whose 'greatness' appears to be, well, greater.

But she was happy regardless of what official historians decide and was too busy celebrating to worry.

Asked about sharing the mark, Grainger said: "It's good company. It feels good ... It's not something you set off to do. I started off as a student and at my first Olympic Games, it was just incredibly to be selected for and to get a medal back in Sydney, which is now 16 years ago.

"I continued because I love this sport and being in a boat with people like Vicky: the passion and the excitement, the pressure of these big Olympic moments. That's what drives me. By following that dream, it's got me to this place but I never set out to do it."

Putting her achievements into context is the job of others and another British rower, James Cracknell, who helped Redgrave win his fifth gold in the coxless fours in Sydney and finished first again in the same discipline in Athens, had a good handle on it.

"Is Michael Phelps, with 25 Olympic medals, nearly five times the Olympian Redgrave is? More than twice the Olympian Carl Lewis [who won 10 games medals] is?" he asked. "It doesn't matter. What Katherine has done is immense.

"At the start of the week there was a question mark over whether she and Vicky would even make the final because of their form. They won the silver by backing themselves in a way no one else backed them."

Cracknell wasn't kidding. It was only in June that Grainger was not going to the Olympics. Her and Thornley had been moved from the pairs to an eight-woman team by British Rowing and it hadn't worked; when the initial squad for Rio was named, they were left out.

The pair held a meeting with self-confessed straight-talking coach Paul Thompson and only when they showed their commitment to succeeding as a two-woman team were they invited to challenge in Rio.

That crisis of confidence followed Grainger's two-year sabbatical after 2012, a period which inevitably had an impact on her form when she returned.

There was talk of tension, between the pair and between them and the coach, but on Thursday they all seemed to have been better for getting through it.

"There have been so many hard days in the last year or two when it [winning a medal] seemed the furthest thing from reality; that we wouldn't come away with anything," Grainger said.

"There was a point when we weren't in an Olympic boat, we weren't selected. Two months out it's not the place you would want to be, so it was hard to see how to get through it.

"At some level, I thought it would come good, we just had to hold our nerve and keep on course. In a way it makes the results all the more sweet if you've been through the mill and come out.

"Sport is a very tough, intense environment to work in. We've all said and done things that have been particularly tough along the way, but it proves what a great working relationship [we have] to come out with a result like that."

Grainger and Thornley led for a large part of Thursday's race and were less than 200 metres away from winning gold at the Lagoa Stadium before being pipped at the last by the Polish pair, Magdalena Fularczyk-Kozlowska and Natalia Madaj.

But somehow it didn't matter. One of Britain's big medal hopes had delivered against what had been long odds just a few weeks ago, and the Team GB bandwagon was rolling on with another impressive success story on the books.

"I thought Katherine made a mistake by taking two years out but she has proved me wrong," said Cracknell. "To come back at the back end of your 30s makes it hard to regain that kick you need in rowing. She didn't have it last year but she has this year and they put the kick in in the first half of the final to give themselves a chance.

"Katherine can look in the mirror and know she delivered the best she could. They raced the best race of their career together and the best of the last few years, and there is pride in watching someone from your sport perform so well."

Whatever your take on measuring greatness and wherever Grainger fits in the history of British sporting achievement, her Rio rowing final performance was one to celebrate.