Above: Julia Ratcliffe winning another NZ hammer title on her home ground at Porritt Stadium in Hamilton. Photo by Alan McDonald / Macspeedfoto.
The 2014 Commonwealth silver medallist Julia Ratcliffe hopes for a repeat visit to the Commonwealth medal dais in Gold Coast. Steve Landells speaks to the Kiwi hammer ace to find out more about her challenging journey to Queensland.
If Julia Ratcliffe’s journey to the 2014 Commonwealth Games – where she won a silver medal – could be described as near perfect her road to the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games has been a little more fraught.
Struggling with a persistent and painful joint injury since last April, there have been moments of self-doubt when Julia has questioned whether she would even make it to Gold Coast.
However, thanks to her ‘village’ of people supporting her at every step; including coach and father, Dave, HPSNZ strength and conditioning coach Angus Ross, and HPSNZ physio Roné Thompson, the Hamilton-based athlete once again hopes to be in the medal picture at a Commonwealth Games.
“Winning silver (in Glasgow) was the highlight of my career so far, so I can’t wait to compete in Gold Coast,” explains Julia. “I have some good friends on the (NZ) team like Camille (Buscomb), Cam (French) and Ben (Langton Burnell). I’m excited for what is going to be a good trip.”
The injury first surfaced during the final months of her four years studying at the prestigious Princeton University in the US. She experienced pain in the sternoclavicular joint, which attaches the sternum and the clavicle bones. The joint had become hypermobile and was irritating the surrounding muscles.
After graduating with a major in economics from Princeton she struggled to produce her best at the 2017 NCAA Championships, finishing sixth with a best of 65.25m but managed to keep “on top of the injury” sufficiently to throw an impressive 70.35m – the second longest of her career – at a meet at Princeton in mid-July.
However, after flying across to the UK to prepare for the World Championships in London, the 2015 World University Games bronze medallist, she says she felt ‘mentally and physically exhausted.’
“I don’t know whether it was the weather change or packing up four years of my life in Princeton into two suitcases but I was not in the space I wanted to be in going into the biggest competition of my life,” she explains. “I think this then compounded the injury, which started to flare up again.”
Giving the competition everything she had and soaking up the atmosphere as best she could under challenging circumstances she took to the hammer circle in London but finished 26th overall with 64.72m – more than six metres down on her lifetime best.
“I’m glad I decided to compete, but I just wish it had have been under different circumstances,” she adds.
Julia then concluded a difficult season by finishing a distant 11th at the World University Games (61.39m).
Returning to New Zealand in September, she rested the injury for a month before enlisting the help of HPSNZ strength and conditioning guru Angus Ross to aid her rehab programme and strengthen the shoulders.
It was a long, slow and often frustrating process. She spent at least a month with a broomstick handle and a washing basket just to continue the throwing movements patterns although, she admits “I hated that washing basket in the end!”
Julia started throwing with a 2kg hammer but then suffered a setback in November when the joint flared up once more.
“I felt like I was back to square one,” she says. “Looking back, it may sound a bit dramatic but I questioned whether I would ever be able to get back to the level I had previously.”
Help was on hand. Her physiotherapist Roné Thompson took on the role as “project manager” maintaining a smooth communication line between coaches, focusing on load management across throwing and lifting and making sure that the “wheels didn’t fall off.”
Julia also switched her mental approach. She set small targets as part of her training programme and viewed the target mark of 67m set by ANZ and the NZOC to prove fitness for Gold Coast as an “opportunity” on her return to competition after a seven-month break. She achieved the goal courtesy of a 67.12m effort at the Waikato BOP Champs
“I’m not quite sure how it went that far,” she says of her performance in Hamilton on February 25. “It must have been sheer will.”
Since then Julia has slowly improved. She hurled the hammer 67.87m in her next competition in Auckland before securing the national title with a 68.39m effort at Porritt Stadium.
Currently sitting number two in the Commonwealth rankings in 2018, she is aware of the threat Commonwealth number one Jillian Weir of Canada and England’s Olympic bronze medallist Sophie Hitchon will pose inside the Carrara Stadium.
So, what are her expectations leading into Gold Coast?
“I’m looking forward to the competition,” she says. “The Canadian, Australian and English girls, we are all good mates. So, it is like a throw-off with your friends and we are all very competitive people, so it almost raises the personal stakes. In terms of expectations, I can’t predict what anyone is going to do but I just have to put myself in a good position mentally and trust that my training has put me in good stead.”
Praising the huge support her father and coach has given her throughout a difficult period, she hopes to repay him a debt of gratitude with a top-quality display in Gold Coast.
“I had a perfect lead up in Glasgow and threw really well,” she says. “I guess it is hard to have exactly that experience again, it has been a long journey to get here but perhaps that is not such a bad thing either.”