Commonwealth hammer champion Julia Ratcliffe posted a slightly unexpected area record at the Oceania Championships in Townsville last month. Steve Landells chats the Wellington-based thrower about the record and how a healthy work-life balance has proved a critical component in her success.
Looking in from the outside it was a performance that defied all logic.
Competing in her first competition since striking gold at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games 14 months earlier, Julia Ratcliffe tossed the hammer out to a stunning Oceania record of 71.39m at the Oceania Championships in Townsville.
It was a distance which created waves within the New Zealand athletics community and also took the Wellington-based economist slightly aback.
However, on closer inspection the performance was rooted in a sensible commitment to a work life-balance coupled with a terrific support team – all of which provided the perfect elixir of success.
To fully make sense of Julia’s story, however, we need to head back to 2017. After graduating from the esteemed Princeton University she struggled to produce her best in the hammer circle.
Finishing a distant 26th in qualification at the London World Championships with a modest best of 64.72m and placing a lowly 11th at the World University Games in Taiwan, Julia believes she had lost “perspective” and her passion for the sport started to wane.
“I got so wrapped up in the sport it became the only thing in my life,” explains Julia. “When things didn’t go well it became hard to keep perspective,” explains Julia.
“There is a big emphasis within high performance sport that athletes should complete qualifications to prepare for life after their sporting career have ended; which is awesome. But, for me, I craved a normal working life and I was getting a little nervous missing out on these experiences. I wanted to move my life forward and take time out of the sport to reflect a little on how lucky I am to do what I do. I didn’t want my life to be defined by pinnacle athletics events.”
Relieved and excited by the future direction of her life, in Gold Coast she produced a mature and composed display to strike gold with a best effort of 69.94m.
However, after accepting a role working as a graduate in the forecasting team of the Reserve Bank’s economics department she took the decision last May to relocate from Hamilton to the capital city.
Adapting quickly to life in Wellington she has also settled rapidly into her role which she describes as a “high school economic student’s dream.”
Yet the hammer hurler’s intention was always to target the Tokyo 2020 Games and she put in place a fitness plan around her 40-hour working week. Training in the gym four times a week with fortnightly throwing sessions, physically she has retained good shape.
“Angus Ross, my strength and conditioning coach, continued to set my strength programme and the Wellington-based high performance strength and conditioning guys, Dave Sturrock and Adam Allen, have offered amazing support,” she explains.
“Gus likes to plays around with new ideas. He reads something, gets excited about it and then tries to introduce into the programme. He is awesome because he always finds new ways to push me. Dave and Adam have been here (at the gym) most mornings and have bent over backwards to make the transition work.”
Revelling in the work-life balance and “mentally and physically” in a good place, ten weeks out from last month’s Oceania Championships she, however, took the decision to compete in Townsville.
Motivated to compete in Queensland to gain qualification points for the Tokyo Olympics she approached Angus and her father and coach, Dave Ratcliffe, to work out a realistic training programme around her work commitments.
Also given huge support from her employers throughout the process, Julia switched to three throws session per week and initially believed a good return from Townsville would be a 64-65m effort.
However, after a chat with her sport psychologist at HP Sport New Zealand, Campbell Thompson, she reassessed the possibilities.
“He asked me, ‘What would be the most unimaginable result?’ And I said, ‘throwing 72.50m and gaining a qualification mark for Tokyo.’ Campbell then replied, ‘what is stopping you achieving that or at least working towards that goal?’”
Taking on a positive mindset she opted to make the most of every throws session – many of which were carried out at a hammer circle at Sinclair Park near the capital’s main athletics hub of Newtown Park.
More focused and setting a clear goal for every session has proved successful. In fact, Julia believes less can definitely be more.
“In the past I’d thrown ten times a week maybe but this led to a lack of focus because how much did that session really matter? Now, I try to make every session count.”
Building up nicely and with occasional trips back to Hamilton and Cambridge to connect with Dave and Angus, by the time she entered the hammer circle in Townsville she re-assessed her chances and believed a 68-69m throw might be possible.
Yet what transpired went way beyond her expectations. A first round 67.22m acted as a solid opener before her second round effort powered out to a monster 71.39m – an improvement on her national record by 64cm and also a new Oceania record.
“I was a bit nervous, my legs started to shake and my balance went,” she explains of her initially aborted effort in round two before regaining her composure for her record-breaking effort. “I bet to others it looked like I was a bit of a diva. It looked like I was saying, ‘hey, this is my turn, wait for me until I’ve completed the throw perfectly’,” she adds with typical razor sharp humour.
When the Oceania record distance of 71.39m was confirmed she raised her arms aloft before running over to hug her father and coach.
For the rest of the competition it was “game on” according to Julia, and although a couple of throws “went astray” – a 70.25m effort in round five gave further evidence of the quality of her display in Townsville.
Having qualified for the 2019 World Championships in Doha, the question is what next for Julia?
“I’m still figuring out if Doha fits into the plan for the Olympics,” explains Julia who intends to relocate back to Hamilton in October to step up her preparations for Tokyo while working for the Reserve Bank in a part-time capacity.
“The end goal remains a podium spot in Tokyo but does Doha fit in with my mental and physical life plan? I’m working through that at the moment. Everyone has been very supportive and I’m currently training as if I’m going (to Doha). If I do go to worlds, there is no reason I can’t put together a performance like I did at the Oceania Championships and if I do, then that would be a fairly competitive performance.”