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Golden hammer thrower banking on a bright future

After claiming gold on the Gold Coast, Julia Ratcliffe is set to fulfil another dream - working for the Reserve Bank. But it’s not the last we’ve seen of the talented young hammer thrower. Juliette Drysdale reports.

Following her emotional victory at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, which flung the sport of hammer throw into the spotlight, Julia Ratcliffe is moving to Wellington to pursue her ‘dream job’ - with the Reserve Bank.

Ratcliffe managed to balance her rise in the sport alongside gaining a degree, majoring in economics at Princeton University in New Jersey. Now she’s about to begin working as a graduate in the forecasting team of the Reserve Bank’s economics department in Wellington.

The 24-year-old hammer thrower, who's been living with her parents in Hamilton, plans to continue her sports training. But she wants to spend time focusing on progressing professionally before turning her full attention to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I studied economics and that’s kind of always what I wanted to go into,” says Ratcliffe. “I think the Reserve Bank is going to be a place where I can get some awesome experience and some good mentoring as well, which is really important.

My body has still not fully recovered from injury, and to get there I really need some time away from throwing. So the next step for me is an extended period of rehabilitation and strengthening in the gym, so I can attack the 2020 campaign at full throttle.”

Born and bred in Hamilton, Ratcliffe owes much of her success to her father. An enthusiastic character and avid sports lover, Dave Ratcliffe took an interest in the sporting pursuits of his daughters and was keen to see them do well and enjoy sport.

“Dad worked part-time, so he was the one who had me and my sister after school for a lot of our primary school and high school years.  So that was really cool because he was always really into sports and took us to all our activities,” Ratcliffe says.

“We did stuff like played musical instruments as well as sports, but it was expected that if we were going to do something, then it was to the best of our ability.”

Ratcliffe tried many different sports - playing hockey in local rep teams, as well as having success as a hurdler in her early years. But it wasn’t until her father brought home a hammer when she was 12 years old that they thought they’d found something with potential.

“Dad said ‘let’s give this a crack’ and I didn't even know what it was at the time. So he took me out and I probably dragged my heels a little bit at the start. But when you're that age and your parents say ‘go’ we’d hop in the van everyday and off we went. So 12 years later here we are,” she says.

“I try to say to young girls at the schools I’ve been visiting: ‘Hey, people think this is a manly sport, but I don't look like a man, I don’t think – or even if I do, it doesn't really matter'."

- Julia Ratcliffe

It was when Ratcliffe began university that she made a conscious decision to invest more in hammer throwing.

“When I was younger, I was having fun for most of the time so it didn't really bother me what I did as long as I was enjoying it, keeping fit and making friends,” she says. “It wasn’t until I got to university that I was ready to take ownership of it, and I decided if I’m spending five days a week doing this, I should probably enjoy it and have some personal investment in it.”

So what is it that Ratcliffe loves about the hammer, probably the least known of the track and field events?

“I like that it’s not something that people are naturally good at. The people at the top have just worked the hardest at it; who’ve put in the most hours and done it the smartest,” she says.

“You can be strong - strength helps a lot - but there’s only so far it will take you. Having speed is a big asset, so it doesn't matter what size you are. If you can move the mass quickly then it’s going to go further.”

Dave Ratcliffe has coached his daughter throughout her career and, incredibly, is self-taught. “I’d say for every hour of training that I've put in, he’s probably put like three into internet researching and looking at video,” his daughter says.

The mental side of the sport is a huge factor in the success of hammer throwers. Ratcliffe cites the example of the two top ranked throwers in the Commonwealth, Englishwoman Sophie Hitchon and Canadian Jillian Weir, who both fouled out of the Gold Coast competition - seemingly rattled on the night. 

"You could kind of see her [Hitchon] drop her head and say 'Oh no, not this again'. And I'm thinking, this is the girl that I look to for my technical analysis; this is the one I'm trying to copy, and here she is. So the mental aspect of it is so, so important." 

Ratcliffe admits that she has struggled a little more in the last year or so as she reaches a higher level of competition.

“I lost perspective a little bit for a while there. I just got so anxious about the whole thing, and so caught up in ‘Oh my gosh, everyone’s put all these resources into me and I’ve worked so hard and now I’m just going to screw it all up.’  You can just see how easily it goes wrong and how one thought unravels everything,” she says.

Ratcliffe has been working with sports psychologist Campbell Thompson focusing on mindfulness.

“If you have the clarity and general oversight to say ‘Hey, my brain’s going down the rabbit hole a little bit when there’s no need for it to be, just take five minutes to reset’, it just helps so much,” she says.

Missing out on qualifying for the Rio Olympics was devastating for Ratcliffe, but meant learning some tough lessons.

“We got caught up in trying to qualify and trying to do it early so we wouldn't be under pressure. It was just like me trying to fire on all cylinders for a whole eight months, which just ruined me, mentally and physically,” she admits. “I think that I definitely had the potential and the strength at the time to do it but we just did it wrong.

“I feel like we can go forward and plan with a lot more confidence now. We can use this time over the next year or so in the gym to play around with a lot of stuff and kind of experiment with what works best for me.”

Ratcliffe is passionate about getting women into sport, positive body image and also about supporting young people dealing with the pressures of life.

“I try to say to young girls at the schools I’ve been visiting: ‘Hey, people think this is a manly sport, but I don't look like a man, I don’t think – or even if I do, it doesn't really matter’,” she says.

When she’s had the opportunity to speak to young leaders in schools, her messages are focused on being yourself and following your passion regardless of what people think.

She also believes in surrounding herself with people she feels comfortable with. “I have some of the best team in New Zealand around me. But Dad wasn’t always the best hammer coach – and he may not be in New Zealand or in the world. But surround yourself with people that you trust and who have the same values as you, because that will take you a lot further than necessarily the best person,” she says.

“And give yourself time. When you're 18 you feel like you have to have it all and have everything sorted. But take the pressure off yourself and enjoy it; make some mistakes because that’s the learning.”

Looking towards the Tokyo Olympics, Ratcliffe wants to continue to balance her professional career with her sport, while looking after her body and mind.

“Life balance and keeping my brain active is really important for my general happiness and therefore my performance as an athlete, so taking this new direction makes the most sense for me right now,” she says.

“I think the good thing about sport is that you learn a lot of things early on that people don’t learn until halfway through a professional career. I’m happy to walk up to people that I know who are way above my pay grade and ask ‘Hi, can you help me?’ or ‘How did you get there?’,” she says. “Sport just teaches you so much.”

Easy-going by nature, Ratcliffe prides herself on ‘getting stuff done’ - an understatement given her achievements to date. At just 24, you get the feeling this is just the beginning for Julia Ratcliffe.

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