A WEEK AFTER winning gold at the Commonwealth Games in Australia, hammer thrower Julia Ratcliffe was back home with her parents on the family’s lifestyle block on Seddon Rd, Puketaha.
Puketaha is a great place to be based. “It’s so close to Hamilton but has the peace of the countryside. It’s always funny having the neighbours’ stock standing on the fence line watching every training session with great interest!”
Born and raised in the Waikato, Julia won the gold medal in the pouring rain at Carrara Stadium, Gold Coast, Queensland with her fifth throw of 69.94 metres. Australia’s Alexandra Hulley came close with a toss of 68.20m.
“After the competition, we got to jog a lap of honour and the amount of Kiwi flags in the crowd was amazing! Friends that I didn’t even realise were on the Gold Coast were popping out of the crowd at the barrier to congratulate me. It was a truly special moment.”
Parents Dave and Sue were in the crowd cheering her on, along with her best friend’s family. After the win, the 24-year-old ran to her father (and coach) in tears, and wrapped herself in the New Zealand flag.
“Winning the gold was a dream come true. Two of my competitors had bigger distances than me on paper but couldn’t put together a decent performance on the night so it just goes to show if you turn up and put your best foot forward, anything can happen.”
After her performance, she watched the rest of the Kiwi athletics team and managed to catch the women’s Blacksticks win their final. “That was an incredible game!”
Julia is the current holder of New Zealand’s national record in the hammer throw, with a distance of 70.75 m set in July 2016. She won the silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, in 2014.
She has been involved in athletics since she was five. “I picked up the hammer when I was 11 or 12. So I’ve been throwing for just over half of my life.”
The name of the sport leads to a small amount of confusion, she says. “It used to be an actual sledgehammer! I get asked about this a lot- all of the kids in high school thought I was that crazy girl throwing building implements around!”
She learned to throw on the concrete pad out the back of Poritt Stadium, close to the family home in Hamilton.
Hammer throwing is a pursuit of perfection, she says. “I like the hammer because it’s such an unnatural movement so it’s not something that anyone is naturally good at. You know that the people who excel at the hammer are the ones that have put in years and years of training. I love the technical challenge and that there is always something to work on.”
Julia attended Princeton University in the US after school, majoring in economics and representing the university in the hammer throw and weight throw. She returned home after graduating and has been training in New Zealand since September last year.
The family moved to Puketaha three years ago – a bigger section was needed for her hammer throwing. “My parents wanted to live in the country and dad was adamant we needed to pick a property with the right dimensions for a hammer field as well.
“So while mum was checking out the houses, dad would be striding around the properties with a measuring tape!
She says her parents have been instrumental in her success. “They are my most trusted advisors and gave my sister and me a lot of their time to help explore and develop our passions as we grew up.
“They instilled in us the importance of hard work and it was expected that if we were going to put our time or effort into something, we would do it to the best of our ability.”
Dave, a former PE teacher, has always coached her. “We have learned a lot together and I’m incredibly lucky to have such a dedicated dad.
“It was funny to see his reaction on the night – he always thinks about the next thing or how I could improve, so while he was thrilled he couldn’t help analyse everything and how it could have been better.
“It was great having mum in the crowd as well. She’s the one who gives me the perspective when I forget how fortunate I am to be able to pursue my passion full-time.”
It had been a rocky road to the games but family and friends made the difference. “I struggled with injury in the lead-up, but I had the greatest support network I could have asked for. Bringing home gold was the ultimate thing I could do to repay their kindness.”
Since returning in mid-April with the gold medal (April 16) Julia has spoken at a number of groups – Women’s Refuge, primary schools, and youth athletic programmes.
“I’ve spent a lot of time sharing my experiences and lessons I’ve learned along the way with the community. It’s this time that makes it all worth it for me, being able to inspire others to take up sport or keep battling against their own struggles.”
Julia will soon leave for Wellington to take a job at the Reserve Bank. “I’ll be joining the forecasting team, the people who write monetary policy statements. I’m super-excited to be getting into this, it’s what I studied at university in the States.”
She will continue to train in Wellington and looks forward to making new connections. “But Puketaha is home, and always will be, my parents will see me at holidays and other times.”
Her advice to young athletes is that they don’t need fancy equipment, or to be naturally the fastest or strongest.
“Get stuck in to as many sports as possible and practice every second you have. Do the sports you love but also try things that are out of your comfort zone. Don’t specialise too early, it is important to develop a wide range of skills, both physical and mental. The ability to work in a team and communicate with others is essential in both sports and life.”
Julia is now spending her days in the gym, maintaining her strength while she figures out her next move.
“And making sure I don’t have any repeat injuries. I still have my sights set on Tokyo in 2020, it’s just a matter of which path makes the most sense to get me in the best position to get there healthy, happy and ready to smash it.”
And here’s a final shot of Julia at home in Puketaha – no cows giving advice today!