When Julia Ratcliffe was about 12, her father brought home a special surprise one day.
“He said Julia I have got you a present,” said Ratcliffe, a native of Hamilton, New Zealand.
“I thought oh great, he never gives me presents out of the blue. It was on my bed and I said what the hell was that, that looks serious.”
The mystery package turned out to be hammer throw equipment and it didn’t take long for Ratcliffe to show that she had a gift for the event.
After dominating local and national competitions, Ratcliffe started to make her mark internationally.
“The Australian Youth Olympic festival in 2009 was my first big one,” said Ratcliffe.
“I got a gold in that. It was cool to have some success overseas especially because I wasn’t picked to win that one. I started getting more and more into it as I got older in high school. I started going to bigger international meets and things like that.”
Ratcliffe set the New Zealand U-18 and U-19 record for the women’s hammer throw on her way to placing fourth in the 2012 IAAFWorld Junior Championships.
In 2012, Ratcliffe came to the U.S., joining the Princeton University women’s track team and made an immediate impact, setting a school record in the weight throw in her debut meet and going on to take second in the event at the Ivy League Heptagonal Indoor championship. In the spring season, she broke the school and Ivy record in the hammer throw several times and won the outdoor Heps title in the event.
This week, Ratcliffe is in Eugene, Oreg., competing in the NCAA Championships. Having won all 11 of her competitions so far this spring, sophomore star Ratcliffe is ranked No. 1 nationally in the event.
Ratcliffe is bringing some extra motivation into the NCAA meet, having finished 11th at the nationals last spring.
“I was ranked second, even if I had an average day I should have done a lot better,” said Ratcliffe, who boasts the best mark in the nation this year in the hammer throw at 230’7, the furthest throw in the college hammer since 2011 and the fifth best throw in collegiate history.
“I just tried too hard so coming off that, I had renewed energy, really wanting to get better, do my best, and just figure out what went wrong and fix it.”
Staying in the moment this spring has helped Ratcliffe produce a brilliant campaign.
“As long as I go out there and give it everything and just be mentally and physically prepared as best as I can, you can’t complain about the result,” said Ratcliffe, citing her experience at the Penn Relays as an example of her progress, noting that she fouled out of the 2013 competition and then uncorked a heave of 216’2 to place first this year and record the third best throw in the history of the storied meet.
“I just feel a lot more mentally prepared this year and I feel like I have the process better understood in my head. I understand myself a lot better when I am competing.”
Ratcliffe has enjoyed competing at and for Princeton. “It was unreal, we have nothing like this in New Zealand, just in terms of all these sports complexes in one place,” said Ratcliffe, who came to Princeton sight unseen and had only been to the U.S. for a family trip to California when she was 10.
“It was 60 ready made friends on the team. I would have probably found it a lot harder if I weren’t on a team. I am pretty social though but it is nice to have a wide range of interests on the team.”
In looking to the U.S. for college, she followed in the footsteps of high school friends.
“There were a few girls in my high school who went overseas on field hockey scholarships and so I thought that might be something I would like to do; I think I might have a good enough academic record to do that,” said Ratcliffe, who attended the Waikato Diocesan School for Girls.
“I didn’t know how I ranked academically and athletically against kids applying to different colleges.”
Considering such schools as Duke, Stanford, and Cornell, Ratcliffe concluded that Princeton was her dream school.
“I decided to go for my top choice which was Princeton because of the economics program here,” said Ratcliffe.
“I just really wanted to study economics. In New Zealand, it is expected that when you go into university that you know what you want to study so you start specializing immediately. I actually reached out to Ed Roskiewicz, who was the Princeton field coach at the time, and so I said hi, these are my distances, these are my SAT scores, will you have me.’”
Princeton women’s track head coach Peter Farrell is certainly glad to have Ratcliffe.
“There is an uncertainty with foreign athletes, you never know how they are going to mesh, it is a different system,” said Farrell.
“I was at a football game her freshman year and I saw a bunch of our freshman athletes there and one of them was in a tiger outfit and it was Julia. I said look at that, she has picked up on the college spirit.”
Farrell believes the lessons Ratcliffe gained from her freshman year has helped her pick it up this spring.
“She had ups and downs as a freshman and that is to be expected; she seemed to do well at home and not as well when she left the confines here,” said Farrell.
“She has one year of maturity and one year of competition under her belt. She is so methodical and consistent in her training, it is like a distance runner who runs 100 miles a week. She throws five to six days a week and not many throwers do that. She is devoted to her craft; it is her passion. She is incredibly fast at the end of her four turns but is still in control.”
Ratcliffe has also made an impression through her engaging personality. “She is an outgoing person, she has made friends easily with teammates,” added Farrell of Ratcliffe, who was recently named the Regional Field Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA).
“She has made friends with her opponents, she talks to every single competitor. It is not condescending, she is inclusive with her opponents. We have a grandfather class, 1966, for 2016 and there are three guys that have been coming to the meets and she talks and jokes with them.”
For Ratcliffe, there is no kidding around when it comes to her training regimen.
“I do a lot of power lifting and Olympic lifting, cleans and snatches and things like that,” said the 5’7 Ratcliffe, noting that her dad helps set her weight training program.
“The key muscle groups are the rotational core and quad strength. I do a lot of squats and dead lifts. I take 20 throws generally in a session. I throw different weights for speed and strength work. It is the power you can get into it from getting in the right body positions because I have been doing it for so long, especially in competition.”
As Ratcliffe looks forward to the hammer competition in Eugene, which is slated for June 11, she is focused on having the right frame of mind.
“I just want to throw well and keep it together because it is so easy to get overexcited and really nervous,” said Ratcliffe, who will be joined at the meet by five Princeton teammates, freshman Megan Curham (10,000 run), sophomore Adam Bragg (pole vault), senior Damon McLean (triple jump), junior Eddie Owens (steeplechase), and senior Chris Bentsen (10,000 run).
“So it is just having a solid series. I obviously want to throw far and the goal is obviously to win but you can’t control what everyone else does on the day so you can only do the best for you. In team sports, like field hockey, you can react to how the other people are playing. In this, you have to focus on yourself and do the best for you.”
Having qualified to compete in this summer’s Commonwealth Games, a major international meet being held in Glasgow, Scotland, Ratcliffe has her sights set on the world stage.
“I would love to go the Olympics in 2016 so that’s a big goal,” said Ratcliffe.
“I would also like to make it to a world champs. It would be kind of cool to get the NCAA record. I am not entirely sure what it is but if it is within reach that would be good.”