As students flood back to Princeton University this week for the start of school, few will have accomplished as much over summer break as Julia Ratcliffe.
In June, the rising Princeton junior and native of Hamilton, New Zealand, won the women’s hammer throw at the NCAA championships in Eugene, Ore., marking the 43rd straight year that Princeton has produced at least one team or individual national champion.
A month later, representing her homeland, Ratcliffe took silver in the hammer throw in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, a prestigious international competition held every four years that features athletes from countries with ties to the British Empire.
Speaking from her summer training base in Wimbledon, England, Ratcliffe believes that her experience this summer will have a long-term benefit.
“I have competed at a high level so when I feel young and under-prepared, it is just to look back and say, I can do this,” said Ratcliffe.
“In high pressure situations like that where there are a lot of distractions, I know that I have the ability to stay focused while still enjoying myself.”
After having finished 11th at the NCAA meet in 2013, Ratcliffe showed an intense focus in taking the title this year.
“I was a bit nervous, I didn’t really want a repeat of last year,” said Ratcliffe. “I knew I basically had to hold it together and not try anything fancy or try too hard and I would probably come away with a different result.”
Ratcliffe was proud of how she kept things together when the finals turned into a two-woman contest between Colorado’s Emily Hunsucker and her.
“I am not in a position often where I have to chase people so when Hunsucker was ahead of me, she threw and then I threw one that beat her and then she threw one that beat me,” recalled Ratcliffe.
“It was oh man, this is going to be a rough one so that was quite cool. I was quite glad that I managed to hold it together through that, it was a novel situation for me. I was glad that I could keep improving on all of my throws because I kind of knew I was going to get one of the top three at least.”
Getting the NCAA title meant a lot to Ratcliffe. “I wasn’t prepared for how big it was,” said Ratcliffe.
“I knew it would be big but everyone went crazy about that, especially people from Princeton. They came up to me and all of my friends from school were so supportive and so proud of me. It means a lot, it made all the training and all the hard cold days worth it. It was more doing it for Princeton and the girls on my team.”
Days after the NCAAs, Ratcliffe headed to England to train for the Commonwealth Games, staying at her aunt’s house in Wimbledon in south London.
“It was a perfect set-up, my dad came over to coach me,” said Ratcliffe. “He was with me twice a day training so we just went down to the local track and threw down there and went to a gym and did some lifting. We had beautiful weather. It was basically ideal training conditions; everything was really accessible and convenient to get to. I could just get out there and train.”
After a training camp with the New Zealand team in Wales, Ratcliffe arrived in Scotland in late July.
“I have been to a few games where there is a village situation but the Commonwealth Games was definitely the biggest one I have been to,” said Ratcliffe.
“It was just huge. The people of Glasgow and the volunteers, especially, were so helpful. They were falling over themselves to help you out, it made the experience awesome. It just really brought the city together. In the stadium, the noise was phenomenal. It was great because they were cheering for everyone but when a Scottish person came out, it was 10-fold, the noise was overwhelming.”
Despite her relative youth and inexperience on the international level, Ratcliffe was not overwhelmed by the atmosphere once she got into action. She achieved the qualifying standard for the final on her first throw in the preliminary round and then battled Canada’s Sultana Frizell tooth and nail in the medal round. Ratcliffe’s best throw was 69.96 (229’ 6.25), just 2.01 meters short of Frizell’s gold medal throw of 71.97.
“I got the automatic qualifier so that was a huge confidence builder,” said Ratcliffe.
“I was just ready to get out there and throw, I was training for this for all year basically, this and the NCAAs were my big competitions. I was ready, not to get it over with, but to get out there and enjoy myself. I was gutted that I couldn’t hit 70 again. To get on the world stage and throw that consistently, there are only good things to come from that.”
Succeeding on the world stage was a surreal experience for Ratcliffe. “We watched the Commonwealth Games as kids, it is kind of you like you watch the Olympics on TV,” said Ratcliffe.
“It was oh that is so cool, people are doing their country proud and winning medals. You feel so proud to be part of your country and to think that people are watching me on the TV is just something that is hard to believe. It seems not real, the competition that I went to in Glasgow where I got a medal, is it is the Commonwealth Games that you watch on TV?”
Ratcliffe’s medal-winning performance made her a TV star for a week in New Zealand.
“People didn’t know who I was before this so it was quite cool because there wasn’t a big media pressure on me to do well,” said Ratcliffe, who got in some travel during her time in England, going to Paris with her family for her 21st birthday and then traveling around Europe for two weeks with some friends after the Commonwealth Games.
“I did a lot of interviews straight after the competition and following. One of my friends e-mailed me the next day after the final and said you are on basically every news channel.”
As she looks ahead to her junior season at Princeton and beyond, Ratcliffe plans to keep making news.
“I would really like to get the meet record at NCAAs, that would be quite cool,” said Ratcliffe, who has her sights on the World Championships and World University Games in 2015 and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I want to keep the consistency up and keep moving forward rather than looking back and saying that was a great year. I can’t sit back and keep doing what I was doing so I am keeping hungry for more improvements.”