Is there such a thing as athletic perfection? After every performance, even the best athlete, looking back, will see a point along the road of training and competition where she could have moved a little faster, pushed a little harder or even been a little smarter. Perfection is perfection in the process, an impossibly high standard to which junior thrower Julia Ratcliffe steadfastly holds herself.
Ratcliffe, now coming off her sophomore season, stepped onto the Princeton campus in fall 2012. Immediately, the first-year phenom began making waves. Her first outdoor hammer throw competition saw her take possession of both her school and the Ivy League record. By the end of her first season, Ratcliffe had topped the Ancient Eight field for her first league title.
But while a Second-Team All-America performance would have been more than enough for most competitors to attain in their first year of collegiate competition, the end of Ratcliffe’s freshman campaign in Eugene, Ore. left a bitter taste in her mouth. Ratcliffe had placed in the top half of competitors in the field and had solidified herself as the nation’s top freshman in the hammer throw, but her 11th-place finish at the NCAA Championships put her thirteen-hundredths of a meter away from moving past the first round of competition.
A spectator from the past year may doubt that Ratcliffe could ever experience defeat in the hammer throw circle, as she remained undefeated throughout the 2014 season. A margin of over 40 feet separated her from the rest of the field at the Disney Invitational in March, but the season was just beginning. Ratcliffe put her name in national news as she quickly climbed to the top of the season leaderboard and maintained that position week after week. After breaking the 70-meter mark in late April and then taking her second straight Heptagonals gold in May, Ratcliffe’s sensational season had been all but secured.
However, her year was far from over. A trip to Jacksonville, Fla. at the end of May once again gave the sophomore star a chance to qualify for the NCAA Championships, and she didn’t disappoint. Her throw of 67.51m bested the field by almost two meters. The performance earned her East Regional Field Athlete of the Year honors, echoing her Most Outstanding Female Field Athlete award at Heps.
With her undefeated season continuing into June, Ratcliffe only had one final meet in Eugene, Ore. separating her from a national title. It was on June 11that Ratcliffe threw herself even further into the Princeton history books; her mark of 66.88m was enough to secure her the national title as Princeton’s first ever NCAA champion in women’s track and field. What’s more, Ratcliffe’s win extended Princeton’s department-wide streak to 43 straight years with an individual or team national championship.
“It was a great feeling,” Ratcliffe said. “You never know what will actually happen on the day, despite your best efforts, so to actually do it was a mixture of relief and happiness. The whole undefeated season was pretty cool, too, but it all depended on the competitions I went to. Of course, the nationals meant a lot, but it was more a case of who turned up to the same competitions as me.”
Coming off a season that seemed to graze perfection, Ratcliffe still has much on her mind. On a personal level, she has goals for her own style and performance to keep her motivated through the second half of her Princeton career.
“I’d love to get the NCAA record, especially the meet record, because I’d have to break that at nationals, which would be a huge achievement,” Ratcliffe said. “In terms of improvement, technique is the biggest thing to work on. It’s such a precise thing that it will never be perfect. There’s always something to work on, so it keeps me on my toes.”
Ratcliffe earns silver at the Commonwealth Games
Even with an NCAA title under her belt, Ratcliffe gave herself little time to rest from working on her throw. In July, the New Zealand record holder competed in the hammer throw at the prestigious Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. With world-class competition converging upon Scotland, Ratcliffe’s sights were simply on the podium.
“I was ranked third for the competition and was hoping to come away with a bronze and break 70m again,” Ratcliffe said. “I knew that if I threw to my potential, I’d probably come away with a medal.”
But Ratcliffe exceeded expectations, as her third final-round throw of 69.96m was enough to earn her the silver medal. She only stood behind 29-year-old Sultana Frizell of Canada, who threw over 70m multiple times in the final round to earn her second consecutive Commonwealth Games title. While she did not win in a hammer throw competition for the first time in 2014, Ratcliffe was as ecstatic as her countless supporters were with her performance.
“First of all, to be able to hold it together and throw consistently well at a huge meet like this was the biggest success for me,” Ratcliffe said. “I would have been happy with a bronze if the other girls outcompeted me, but one of them couldn’t bring it on that day, so I snagged the silver.”
And as is typical of Ratcliffe, the primary value derived from competition did not come from the hardware she came away with, but the lessons she learned.
“The biggest lesson was to stay calm and focused enough to throw, but not enough to become apathetic toward all the cheering and atmosphere because that can really lift you up,” Ratcliffe said.
While Ratcliffe remains humble amid her wealth of success, her fans have been anything but quiet in touting her achievements during the summer. From New Jersey to New Zealand, Ratcliffe’s family, friends and other fans have let the world know that it is witnessing the rise of a global track and field star. Ratcliffe attributes much of her success to this vast support.
“The support I’ve had has been absolutely phenomenal,” Ratcliffe said. “Friends and family have had some early New Zealand mornings to catch me, and there’s no feeling that compares to that level of support. It’s made all the hard work worth it, knowing that not only those close to me, but the rest of New Zealand is behind me.”
With her competition over at the games, Ratcliffe has had some time to relax and to enjoy watching other sports. But that relaxation has not kept her away from the throwing circle.
“I’ve actually managed to get a bit of casual throwing in, which is nice now that the pressure is off,” Ratcliffe said. “I went out with the gold medalist, Sultana Frizell of Canada, to throw, and it was quite inspirational to get to throw with her. She’s an awesome chick. I also managed to get out and watch some other sports, such as netball and field hockey. I’ll have a few weeks off with friends and family traveling before I come back to school.”
Her tenacious work ethic and drive to perform may not differ much during her junior year. Her dominance of competition may not change much either. But she will certainly carry more with her: more hardware, more fame and most importantly, more experience. Where she will carry herself next is uncertain, but her pursuit to be all she can be aligns her spirit best with the phrase, “citius, altius, fortius,” Latin for “higher, faster, stronger,” which is the motto of the Olympic Games.