Alison Boulton talks to the decorated Olympic rower and new university Chancellor

The new Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University is a can-do gal. Not only is Katherine Grainger a lawyer with a PhD in homicide, she’s the most successful female British Olympic rower of her generation.

Grainger shares an even more heady title with swimmer Rebecca Adlington: they tie for the most decorated British female Olympian ever.

There’s a big difference, however: Adlington has retired from competitive sport. Grainger is still in the game.

Currently in training for her fifth Olympics in Rio in 2016, Grainger is positive and upbeat.

After her gold medal in London in 2012, she initially doubted whether anything could top the ecstasy of winning in front of “a delirious home crowd who wanted it about as much as I did”.

“Then I thought: why not? It could be a lot of fun, and I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity. You can’t predict the outcome – that’s the excitement of sport – but in sport, as in life, it’s important to seize chances when you’re given them. You never know where they may lead,” Grainger said.

Growing up in a comfortable Glasgow suburb surrounded by families with children, Grainger and her older sister revelled in activity: playing and working equally hard, but without parental pressure.

“My childhood was idyllic: smooth and solid, loving and secure. I just remember always being busy. The cul-de-sac we lived on was a fantastic place for bike riding or scooters, and there were parks for hide-and-seek, and clubs for football and Brownies. It was a lot of fun. Summer evenings seemed to go on forever. We cut loose and were set free.”

Encouraged by her teacher parents to be active and try new things, Grainger and her sister eagerly embraced challenge and rarely worried about failure.

“It didn’t matter how good you were. The important thing was to rule nothing out. To fit in as much as you could in a day. Having a go was what was important. The success you had was really up to you. Knowing you could get better at something was what kept everything fresh,” Grainger said.

An able student at Bearsden Academy, after 17 years living in Glasgow, Grainger went on to study law at Edinburgh University.

As well as being encouraged to try musical instruments, she and her sister were team players in school sports such as netball, badminton and swimming. Grainger was already a black belt in karate when she arrived for her first university year.

“I fancied trying rock climbing or skiing: something different which I might not have the chance to try again. University’s such a supportive environment with an unprecedented abundance of opportunity,” Grainger said.

During a characteristically busy first term, she discovered that the Edinburgh University Boat Club was seeking novice oarsmen.

“Someone suggested I was the right kind of build and height, and so I put my name down,” Grainger said.

Of the 52 who signed up, only 16 would be chosen for the university novice squad. Naturally competitive, Grainger thought she’d try to make the top 16. Her first outing was not a perfect synergy of novice and boat, but there was something else: an instant social cohesion and ease with her fellow rowers which fitted her perfectly.

“I thought ‘these are my kind of people’,” Grainger said. They were uncharacteristically driven, dedicated achievers – kindred spirits, who have remained friends for life. Grainger is godmother to three of her fellow oarswomen’s children, and was a bridesmaid to another.

“They hooked me into the sport before the sport hooked me,” Grainger said.

Failure is relative, but when Grainger was not selected to row for Edinburgh University in her second year, she was shocked and disappointed.

“It was the first real crushing of my dreams – when expectations failed to meet reality,” Grainger said.

Instead of being discouraged though, Grainger took stock, and worked hard the following year to improve her performance.

“I asked myself first of all ‘did I really want to do this?’. I decided I did. It was painful, but I recognised that there was more work to do. I had to knuckle down,” Grainger said.

After this initial setback, Grainger never looked back. By her fourth and final year, she was representing Scotland and trying out for the Great Britain team. Six times world champion, Grainger was selected for the Sydney (2000), Athens (2004) and Beijing Olympics (2008).

Winning a silver at Sydney in the quadruple sculls was “the best moment of my life at that point”.

“No one thought we could do it. It came as a surprise not only to us, but to everyone else,” Grainger said.

Eight years later, the Beijing Olympics brought with it a huge weight of expectation.

As in 2000, Grainger was competing in the quadruple sculls. She’d won a second silver in the coxless pairs in Athens.

This time, the symmetry of 2000 was not lost on anyone. Expectations skyrocketed. Leading the host nation crew for over four-fifths of the race, the gold medal passed to China in the last few seconds. Great Britain won the silver. This time the mental goalposts had inexorably shifted. It was no longer enough.

“In the space of eight years I moved from the best moment of my life to the worst. Eight years ago silver had felt like a life-changing achievement. This time it felt like failure.

“I felt I’d let down everyone. My family, my team mates, my country, my friends – even people I didn’t know at all who’d sent me well-wishes. People were kind but I just couldn’t see it.”

It took Grainger a few months to restore her self confidence enough to contemplate rowing again. The same people who Grainger had always returned to were there for her once again: family, friends, coaches, team-mates.

“My friends sometimes know how I feel before I do. They were always ready to talk. It’s important to be honest. What keeps the sport fresh can also break your heart. The journey is a rollercoaster ride: the highs so unbelievably high, the lows utterly crushing.”

Grainger had already achieved a masters at Glasgow University in medical law and medical ethics and was studying for a PhD at King’s College, London. It was only when she was tempted back into rowing by a season in the single scull and then followed that with a double sculls with team mate Anna Watkins, that she realised that her love affair with the sport was not over.

Grainger and Watkins’ sporting and mental chemistry was instant. They remained unbeaten for the three years they competed together. Together they broke the previous Olympic record in their first Olympic race in London 2012, and then won the gold medal.

In 2013, Grainger was awarded her PhD from King’s College London, and her appointment as Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University followed in 2015.

She follows in the footsteps of icons of liberty and free speech: Shami Chakrabarti, Jon Snow and Dame Helena Kennedy.

“It was a wonderful surprise. I felt honoured to be asked and awed by the outstanding record of the people I followed. I’ve always recognised education as an incredible privilege and opportunity and I love the strong values that students at Brookes demonstrate.”