Women's Track & Field: Kiwi shines in debut season
At a little over 5 feet, 7 inches, freshman Julia Ratcliffe is far from being the biggest weight thrower. But she is strong.
In her first competition as a Tiger at Princeton’s New Year’s Invite on Dec. 9, Ratcliffe repeatedly crushed the Ivy League record as she unleashed soaring throw after throw. Accelerating through a four-turn spin, Ratcliffe whipped the 20-pound ball and chain around her head and hurled it 19.23 meters on her second attempt — erasing the old conference record of 19.21 set in 2010 by Princeton’s Thanithia Billings ’11. By her fifth attempt, Ratcliffe had pushed the record a foot farther, throwing 19.58 meters.
“Generally, the hammer and weight throwers are these big strong people, and she’s one of the smaller ones I would imagine,” women’s track and field assistant coach Brian Mondschein said. “But she’s really fast. Ultimately, throwing far is about the speed of the implement at release, and she’s able to get that speed.”
No stranger to success, the New Zealand native is the Oceania junior women’s hammer throw record-holder. This summer Ratcliffe placed fourth in the hammer at the 2012 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Junior Championships in Barcelona. However, while Ratcliffe has had plenty of experience throwing the hammer, the weight throw’s lighter cousin, this is the first year she’s ever competed in the weight throw. Due to space restrictions, only the weight is thrown indoors, while the hammer is reserved for outdoors.
“I knew I’d be throwing the weight over the winter when I got to Princeton, so before I got to school I started throwing it around a little,” Ratcliffe said. “I was awful.”
When Ratcliffe first arrived on campus, she was throwing the weight 16 to 17 meters. Throughout the fall she has steadily increased her strength and speed with the implement, and by December Ratcliffe was throwing upward of 19 meters and knew that the record was close. But for Ratcliffe, the weight throw is just a minor focus compared to the hammer, with which she has a much longer history.
“One day [my father] brought home a hammer and said, ‘I got you a present,’” Ratcliffe said. “I thought, ‘Oh cool, a present! … What is that?’ Then I was like, ‘This is stupid; I don’t want to do that.’ But he took me out, and as I started getting better, it got cool.”
Ratcliffe’s father, a high school track coach, has coached her ever since she started throwing. In New Zealand, Ratcliffe competed mainly with her club and individually. Under her father’s guidance, Ratcliffe rose to become a multiple-time New Zealand youth and junior champion.
As she neared the end of her high school career, Ratcliffe posted an online profile on a recruiting website and began to get offers from American schools. Interested more in academics than large state school powerhouses, Ratcliffe reached out to Princeton and was sold.
Still, before starting her first semester, Ratcliffe says she was uncertain how the adjustment would be on the other side of the world.
“My dad has coached me my whole life, and I thought it would be kind of difficult coming to a new coach,” Ratcliffe said. “I wasn’t sure how well the whole team training thing would go, but it’s been really good. Brian Mondschein has been my coach and has been wonderful; he’ll help me with anything I need.”
While Ratcliffe trains with the team under Mondschein’s guidance, she still is able to follow the program that her father writes for her. Ratcliffe’s workouts involve integrated strength and technique work so that she is never neglecting any important aspects of the throwing cycle.
“A lot of the stuff [Ratcliffe’s father] has her doing seems to be helping, so it’s kind of nice to just be part of it,” Mondschein said. “I’ll probably pretend to take credit for it when she does well. I joke with her that when she’s in a big competition and has a really far throw, I’m going to run down and hug her so people know that I’m her coach. It’s good for your reputation.”
As Ratcliffe progresses through the rest of the indoor season and into the spring, the biggest area on which she can focus is her overall strength, which comes with age and increased weight training.
“Absolute strength is the type of strength you get from doing squats and cleans and a lot of heavy lifting in the weight room. You have to have a certain amount of that,” Mondschein said. “Then you have to have speed strength. That’s the ability to generate a lot of power — to do a lot of work in a very short time. She kind of has a lot of that stuff, but strength is obviously one of the things she’ll need to improve as she develops in her career.”
As she adapts to the demanding life as a student athlete at Princeton, Ratcliffe is content with taking things slowly and cautiously. After her high school ended at the start of the New Zealand summer in December of 2011, Ratcliffe had five months to devote herself entirely to serious training for the World Junior Championships. Now with the added demands of schoolwork, however, she has been forced to cut back her training regimen.
“Just in terms of training, I want to focus on getting back up to where I was before college, as I’ve had to pretty much cut my training in half with school and everything,” Ratcliffe said. “I’ve had to adjust to being in college and everything, so if I can gradually get up to my top shape this year, that will be a good achievement for me.”
As she continues to train and get stronger, Ratcliffe has serious potential to score big points at Heps indoors in the weight throw — even if it’s not her main focus. In the spring, she hopes to improve upon her hammer personal best of 67.00 meters, challenge for an Ivy League title and advance to the NCAA championships if all goes well. According to Mondschein, Ratcliffe is well prepared to handle the work she needs to do.
“She’s a very dedicated worker. It’s one of the things you really notice about her,” Mondschein said. “People who are very successful tend to make sure that they do all the details. She’s very thorough and has a pain-staking attention to detail. That’s what makes her a good student as well.”
Most importantly, Ratcliffe always manages to enjoy what she does.
“She’s just really fun to work with — she’s a good kid, she’s funny, she has a sense of humor,” Mondschein said. “The sessions are not necessarily painful — they’re partially lighthearted as well — so she’s not a drudge to work with.”