n the summer of 2015, Julia Ratcliffe ’17 embarked on a carefully planned sabbatical year. Ratcliffe competes in the hammer throw — track and field’s medieval throwing event that requires a spinning technique to hurl a 4-kilogram (8.8-pound) ball-and-chain contraption out onto a triangular pitch — and was seeking to improve her personal best of 70.28 meters (230 feet, 7 inches) by about two feet to achieve the Olympic qualifying mark of 71 meters.
“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,” she explains.
In preparation, her father — and de facto coach — constructed a hammer facility at their home in the New Zealand countryside. “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,” Ratcliffe says, 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. A gigantic throw in London improved her personal best to 70.75 meters, but she came up just 10 inches short of the Olympic qualifying standard.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself early to throw far even though I still lacked the training to do that,” Ratcliffe says. “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.”
Ratcliffe already was quite accomplished in the hammer throw when she first arrived at Princeton as a 19-year-old. The New Zealand national record-holder in the hammer, she had just finished fourth in the World Junior Athletics Championships. Coaches anticipated more great performances at Princeton and Ratcliffe delivered, becoming the first woman in team history to win an NCAA track and field title in 2014.
Ratcliffe — who holds both the Princeton and Ivy League records in the hammer and the school record in the indoor 20-pound weight throw — has a glittering, yet-to-be completed collegiate résumé that includes six Ivy Heps titles (four in the hammer, an unprecedented feat). In the NCAA hammer finals, she finished 11th as a freshman, won the event as a sophomore, and was the runner-up as a junior after DeAnna Price, a 2016 Olympian, uncorked an NCAA-meet-record throw.
After just missing an Olympic berth last summer, the rising senior returned to campus knowing her classmates had graduated; Princeton’s longtime women’s track and field coach, Peter Farrell, had retired; and she faced writing her senior thesis. But “coming back was like coming home, and I made a bunch of new friends here,” she says. “The people here made it so easy just to slip back into Princeton.”
In the winter, Ratcliffe once again won the weight throw at the Heps indoor championships. Her top early-season hammer throw of 68.05 meters was easily the Ivy’s best and No. 2 on this season’s NCAA leaderboard. Eyeing June’s NCAA Championships, Ratcliffe has a chance to become the first woman in school history to be a four-time national finalist in the same event.
Ratcliffe also aims to fulfill her quest to throw 71 meters — a mark that would qualify her for August’s IAAF World Championships in London. “I think [qualifying] would raise my excitement because I’ve been chasing it for so long,” she says, adding with characteristic understatement, “It would put a smile on my face.”