Perhaps it lacked the visceral intensity of Andy Murray's march to a Grand Slam title.

Maybe it didn't have the same unexpected quality as Tim Baillie's Olympic triumph or Paul Lawrie's part in Europe's incredible Ryder Cup recovery over the Americans at Medinah. Yet, for some of us, Katherine Grainger's single-minded pursuit of glory, which culminated in the Glasgow rower finally attaining the gold medal which she had craved for the previous two decades, was one of the best sports stories of 2012.

Almost four months on, the memory of her epic display, alongside Anna Watkins, in the women's double sculls final has lost none of its lustre. On the contrary, when the 37-year-old spoke to Herald Sport last week, it was as if she remained entranced by the recollection of how three previous Olympic silvers were trumped during the London festivities.

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In Fort William today, she will deliver the annual Royal Society of Edinburgh Christmas lecture to 300 children at Lochaber High School. Then she will travel south, as one of the short-listed dozen candidates for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award at the weekend. She won't win, of course – that honour will go to Bradley Wiggins, Murray or Rory McIlroy – but when even someone as cerebral, articulate and quick-witted as Grainger finds herself struggling to sum up the gamut of emotions she has experienced this year, you realise that something special has occurred. Eton Dorney's heroics are indelibly etched.

"Anybody who knows me will realise how much the Olympic gold meant to me. It was the ultimate prize, the pinnacle, but it had proved so elusive that I had started to wonder if I would ever win one," says Grainger. "It had been very difficult [finishing as runner-up in Beijing in 2008], because that showed me that you can try everything, you can work as hard as you possibly can, but you still might come up short.

"If I hadn't won gold, would I have felt unfulfilled? In a word, 'yes'. But that simply spurred me on. The whole atmosphere around the Olympics was incredible and the way it all came together was just fantastic. I suppose, now I have had enough time to take it all in, I can describe it as a dream that I thought might never come true."

Her success has prompted inevitable debate about whether she will continue until the Rio Games four years hence. For some athletes, addicted to the spotlight, and with more athleticism than mental agility at their disposal, this might provoke serious soul-searching. Grainger, though, will return to King's College in London next month to complete her PhD – in Homicide, of all things – and will not make any long-term decisions on her future until she and Watkins have assessed what lies ahead.

"It is not on my agenda, but it is not definitely off it either. I don't want to burn my bridges, but it is such a long way off that I don't even think it is sensible to talk about what might or not happen," says Grainger who will be over 40 by the stage the Olympics commence in Brazil. We have the World Championships coming up [in 2013] and that might offer a clearer picture, but I am really taking things one day at a time. I spoke to my coach recently and I told him, 'There is no way I could compete just for the sake of having fun.' His response was, 'Good; that is what I wanted to hear.' Once you have been involved at the highest level for 10 or 15 years, you have to set your own targets and focus on finding new ambitions and that is where I am at the moment. So, of course, Rio is a wonderful possibility. And, for those of us who have come to love the Olympics, it is tempting to say, 'I want to do this again.' But the bottom line is that I would only consider going to Brazil if I genuinely, 100% believed that I could win the gold. I would not be remotely interested in just making up the numbers."

Grainger will enjoy communicating her passion and commitment during her RSE lecture, called The Journey to Gold. In her case, the trip turned into an Everest-style trek, but this engaging individual has the requisite eloquence and experience to preach to the unconverted and she recognises the importance of doing missionary work, amid the post-Games euphoria.

As she declares, quietly, but insistently; "I want to pass on some of the things I've learned, because at that age, anything is possible and I hope the kids listen and enjoy my story and decide to take an interest in sport. There is still a feel-good factor, following the Olympics and I hope I can tap into that.

Ultimately, though, Grainger appreciates that nothing lasts for ever and she isn't a nostalgia junkie. "The Sports Personality programme will give me the chance to meet up with some of my friends from the Games, but, once that is over, I expect life to move on," she says. "It will always be something to cherish, and the last few months have been incredible, but we have to stop talking about the past and I am almost looking forward to moving into 2013, when studying will be my priority again. That might be a bit strange for a few weeks, but I know I will get back into it again."

By the time she resumes her PhD, Grainger will be ready to duck out of the spotlight. What odds on her doing so as a Dame, come the New Year Honours List?