Above: Julia Ratcliffe on her way to a New Zealand hammer title in Dunedin. Photo by Alan McDonald Macspeed.
New Zealand national hammer record holder Julia Ratcliffe faces a potentially defining next ten months or so of her career. Steve Landells caught up with the 23-year-old Princeton graduate to gauge her future goals and ambitions for this season and beyond.
Was it really nearly three years ago since Julia Ratcliffe hurdled the hammer out to a mighty 69.96m to win silver at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games?
If time seems to pass at an ever-quickening rate, perhaps it might be worth a reminder that the next edition of the quadrennial multi-sport competition set for Gold Coast next year is now just ten months away.
Since standing on the podium at Hampden Park a lot has happened to the energetic Hamilton-athlete.
Earlier this month Julia graduated with an economics degree from the highly-esteemed Princeton University. Last year she added 47cm to her national record with an impressive 70.75m and she managed to successfully shake a niggling neck injury. Yet for the past two years she has frustratingly missed out on her ultimate sporting ambitions.
In 2015 she won silver at the NCAA Championships and claimed a bronze at the World University Games but fell short of qualification for the Beijing World Championships.
Determined to make the cut for the Rio Olympics, she deferred her degree for a year returned home to New Zealand to focus 100 per cent on training where she had the advantage of being watched daily by her coach and father, Dave.
After struggling with a neck injury for a lengthy spell, she hurled the hammer 69.27m during the domestic season and then during her European campaign set that new national record of 70.75m in London. Yet chasing at the very least a B standard of 71m for Rio consideration proved elusive.
“It was disappointing to miss out, “she says of his 2016 Olympic bid. “I had made some big technical breakthroughs in the two to three weeks before the end of the qualification period and I was starting to feel really good.
“In London (with her national record throw) they even tried to measure with the metal tape to see if they could find some extra centimetres, but it wasn’t to be,” she says. “I remember my last competition before the (Olympic qualification) deadline came in Lewes in England. I managed to put together one of my most consistent series with a number of 68m throws (she threw a best of 68.80m). That day it rained. It was miserable and cold and I felt pretty defeated that day.”
Ever the optimist, however, Julia prefers to dwell on the positives of a season which ended with her injury-free, setting a national record and mentally refreshed to re-start her final year at Princeton University.
The hammer thrower from the Waikato, although frustrated that her PB of 70.75m would have been good enough to place ninth in the Olympic final, was delighted her fellow international hammer thrower Sophie Hitchon of Great Britain took the bronze medal in Rio.
“I was so pleased for Sophie, that really made it (the final) for me,” she says. “She is someone who I look up to. I know she is a clean athlete, a hard worker and she also has a beautiful technique. I’ve also had occasional contact with her coach (Tore Gustafsson) and it is great to see an athlete succeed that I can relate to in terms of size and technique.”
Since Rio the final year at Princeton has passed by in a blur. Despite the intense academic demands, she has successfully juggled training and her university studies.
Academically she has thrived and she enjoyed the “privilege” of having Nobel Prize winning econometrician Chris Sims as her thesis advisor to oversee her thesis topic of loan to value ratios in the New Zealand housing market.
Training under a supportive head coach Michelle Eisenreich and experiencing the “least harsh” North East US winter during her four-year period at Princeton has enabled the Kiwi to enjoy a relatively smooth preparation for the bigger challenges to come in the second half of the year.
Earlier in 2017, Julia she enjoyed a solid winter indoor campaign in the 20lb weight throw event and was elated with her conclusion to the season.
“The weight throw is not something I give too much thought to because at the end of the day it is not an event I’m going to continue with,” she says. “But I put on a little weight during the indoor season and this really helps for the weight throw. I had an average season overall but I thought to myself if I am going to put on this weight, I might as well be heavy and happy. I turned it around for the last meets with a couple of national records (of 20.13m in Princeton and 20.45m in the Ivy League Indoor Championship), which I was really pleased about.”
Outdoors so far she has enjoyed a solid campaign. Hampered by wet conditions has undoubtedly compromised her ability to throw further in several meets, although a season’s best effort of 69.24m effort to win the Ivy League Championships in New Haven was particularly satisfying.
However, she disappointingly signed off her college career last weekend at the NCAA Championships in Eugene on a low note, placing down sixth with a best of 65.25m in a competition won by a mighty hurl of 73.32m from Maggie Ewen.
The immediate plan for Julia is to remain based in Princeton for June and July where she will be joined by her New Zealand-based father, Dave, for some one on one coaching but also to target a number of competitive appearances in an attempt to meet the qualification mark (72m A Standard and 71m B Standard) for the London World Championships
Beyond that she will compete at the World University Games in Tapei in late August - an event where she placed seventh in 2013 and where she won bronze in 2015.
“It is probably one of my favourite events to go to, it is so much fun,” says Julia of the World University Games. “It's always a really good top-quality competition, but with more of a casual feel to it. It would be great to pick up a medal and sneak up a place or two from last time. I’m looking forward to it.”
She then plans to return to New Zealand to focus 100 per cent on April’s Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, where she hopes to once more be in the medal mix.
“I look like I’ll be up against two to three Canadians led by Sultana Frizell, the defending champion, who has been battling a foot injury,” says Julia who is unsure what her plans are in terms of her academic development or her potential career path beyond Gold Coast. “The two other Canadian 70m throwers are Heather Steacy and Jillian Weir. The other danger will be England’s Sophie Hitchon, who is looking pretty sharp. It should be a good competition for the medals. I’m aiming for that gold it will awesome to compete in what should be a real clash of the titans.”