Julia Ratcliffe is an NCAA hammer champion. She will be competing in the NCAA Hammer Throw final on Wednesday, June 7, in Eugene, Oregon. David Hunter wrote this fine piece on this fine athlete a few weeks ago, and I, of course, got behind. Here is an exciting story on the Princeton thrower. We wish Julia the best of luck on Wednesday!
When Julia Ratcliffe first arrived at Princeton, the 19-year-old was already quite accomplished in the hammer throw. With Ratcliffe already holding the New Zealand national record in the hammer and having just finished 4th in the World Junior Athletics Championships, continued great performances by the Kiwi were anticipated. And while the Economics major has indeed authored a distinguished collegiate athletic career, no one could have anticipated her wild athletic ride which has produced more twists and turns than Ratcliffe’s cyclonic revolutions in the hammer circle.
Ratcliffe – who now holds both the Princeton and Ivy League records [230’7″] in the hammer and the school record [65’5Â½”] in the indoor 20 pound weight throw – has a glittering, yet-to-be completed collegiate record: 4-time Heps hammer champ and 2-time Heps weight throw champ. In the NCAA hammer finals, the young thrower finished 11th as a freshman, won the event as a sophomore [to become the first Princeton woman to win an NCAA track & field title and to add a 43rd year to Princeton’s then-annual national championship streak], and was the runner-up as a junior – defeated when the winner Deanna Price, since an Olympian, uncorked an NCAA championship record throw to spoil Ratcliffe’s title defense.
After her junior year, Ratcliffe embarked on a carefully-planned sabbatical year, seeking to improve her hammer best of 70.28m by slightly over 2 feet to achieve the Olympic qualifying mark of 71.00m [232’11”]. “Given the academic pressures of Princeton, I didn’t think I would achieve my goal if I combined my senior year with concentrated training I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to qualify for Rio.” In preparation, her father – and her de facto coach – constructed a hammer facility at their rural home. Hammer training in the New Zealand countryside was not without its challenges. “Occasionally I would throw a rogue hammer and it would go into the neighbor’s property or would take out a new bush that Mom had just planted,” explains Ratcliffe, laughing. “We tried to keep those rogue hammers quiet, but I almost hit a cow and some sheep.”
After undistracted preparation, Ratcliffe went after the elusive 71 meter mark. And while a gigantic throw in London did improve her personal best to 70.75 meters, she came up just 10 inches short of the Games qualifying standard. “I put a lot of pressure on myself early to throw far even though I still lacked the training to do that,” laments Ratcliffe. “By the end of June, I was finally making some difficult, technical breakthroughs. But I think it just came too little, too late to be able to put it together in a competition.”
After just missing an Olympic berth, the rising senior returned to campus knowing her classmates had graduated, Princeton’s long-serving women’s track & field coach Peter Farrell had retired, and she faced a thesis-encumbered final year. Ratcliffe’s apprehension was short-lived. “Coming back was like coming home and I made a bunch of new friends here,” she exclaims. “The people here made it so easy just to slip back into Princeton.”
This past winter, Ratcliffe once again won the weight throw at the Heps indoor championships. And her winning hammer throw of 69.24 meters [227’2″] to capture her 4th Heps hammer crown is easily the Ivy’s best and is #2 on this season’s NCAA leader board. Eyeing June’s NCAA championships, Still undefeated in the hammer this outdoor season, Ratcliffe aims to fulfill her Ahab-like quest to throw 71 meters – a mark that would qualify her for August’s IAAF World Championships in London. “I think it [qualifying] would raise my excitement because I’ve been chasing it for so long,” she understates. “It would put a smile on my face.”
This June, Ratcliffe is likely to become the first Princeton woman ever to be a 4-time NCAA track & field finalist in the same event. In reaching the hammer final, she would be well positioned to reclaim the national title. There might not be a better way for Julia Ratcliffe to conclude her glorious collegiate athletic career than by regaining the NCAA hammer crown – unless of course her winning series would also include a World Championship-qualifying heave of 71 meters. / Dave Hunter ’72 /