By Julia Ratcliffe

It was the first big thing I’d failed at in life.

During the summer of 2016, all I wanted was to compete at the Rio Olympics, and I knew I had the ability to do that.

I did everything I could in the build-up, but in the end it wasn’t enough. My best throw, a national record of 70.75m, was 25cm short of what I needed to qualify.

That was hard to swallow, the first time I’d truly given my best to something but been unable to achieve what I wanted. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the women throw at the Olympics on TV, and it left me with a bad attitude towards the sport for a while. 

In the months that followed I didn’t feel like throwing and, looking back, my mentality probably contributed to the injuries I suffered the following year. I think your body picks up when your mind is feeling down.

But I think the inverse is also true and, in recent months, I can feel my training starting to click, knowing that this time around I’ll be at the Games.  

I’ll never forget that day I got selected, officially announced on the New Zealand team. In sport you often have this narrative in your head that you’re showing the haters, proving someone wrong, but the truth is I haven’t had to face many haters.

Still, it still felt like a victorious moment, revenge of sorts for missing out on Rio. I guess it was proving to my past self that I could do it.

Julia Ratcliffe ()

It was a victory for my whole family. My Mum and sister had been pulled along on my Olympic dream and had always been so supportive, while for my Dad, well, this is the culmination of a journey we started about 17 years ago. He was the one who introduced me to track and field when I was a kid, and he’s been my coach ever since.

In those early years I tried all the events, but it became pretty obvious from my body type what I was good at – gravity wasn’t my friend, and neither was endurance, so we got into sprints and hurdles.

I first tried the hammer when I was 11 or 12, juggling it with other events and field hockey during high school.

I’d like to say I had an instant connection with the event the first time I picked up the ball, but anyone who tells you that is lying. In reality, it’s a weird feeling, an unnatural movement, and it takes time to pick up the technique. In my teenage years, there was never many athletes my age doing it, so I’d often compete against masters. 

Dad was a PE teacher, one who coached high school athletics, and while he didn’t know much about the hammer when I started out, he stopped at nothing to learn what he needed. He’s a very smart man, has an obsessive personality and he does a crazy amount of research. That’s where the throwing community is so great: it’s small but you can ask around for advice and people will always help. When I was 12 or 13, Dad was sending videos of my throws to top coaches around the world, asking for feedback. 

Together, we learned how to throw the hammer.

Julia Ratcliffe ()

People say to me that we must bicker a lot but, to me, being coached by your Dad is a huge advantage. You know he has your best interests at heart so we’re in this together – until the bitter end.

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate not many Dads and daughters are this close and how hard it is for many to find common ground, so I’m really glad we had these adventures together. We got to travel the world and when we get home, sure, he doesn’t switch off from coaching mode, but that’s okay.

He was still my coach when I was based at Princeton University in the US, 14,000 kilometres from my home in Hamilton, New Zealand. That was part of the deal of me going there, that he could still set my programme, and it allowed me consistency in an environment where the turnover of coaches can be high.

We’d Skype a lot, I’d video my training and put it in a Dropbox folder, then fill in a detailed training programme – what weights I’d lifted, how fatigued I felt.

After I missed out on Rio in 2016, I had one year left to complete at Princeton but it wasn’t a good one in the circle. I had a rough last six months with injury and had to rebuild my body once I moved back to New Zealand in 2017.

But I got back on the horse, and in 2018 I went to the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast unencumbered by expectations, given the injuries. It was such a cool feeling to throw like that, and in the end I won gold.

Julia Ratcliffe ()

When you get it right like that, it’s an amazing feeling.

In the hammer, the key to making it go further is making the ball move faster at the end of the throw. There are so many different things you can tinker with to make that happen: how low you are to the ground; how much you’re countering against the ball; how fast your body is turning: how long you can get your arms reaching out; the path of the ball as it goes around you.

Everyone solves those differently, and two very different throwers could throw equal distances. To me, that’s what makes the event really exciting.

Unfortunately, it’s still an event that struggles for fair treatment. The hammer is not in the Diamond League so there’s not many opportunities to compete on big stages and that makes it really hard to have depth.

That’s a real pity because it’s a super-technical, highly complex event and really different body shapes and skill sets can do well in it.

Julia Ratcliffe ()

At so many events, the hammer is held outside the main stadium and even when that’s not the case, throws  – and field events in general – often get really poor coverage.

As a result, it’s an event you certainly don’t do for money.

But I’m really lucky. I had a period working full-time after I graduated so I have savings I can use to fund this Olympic journey. I’m not on a contract with a clothing company – they’re hard to get as a hammer thrower – and I live with my parents. I don’t pay my coach (because he’s my Dad) so I know I’m in a rare situation where I can make it work.

Dad will be there in Tokyo, watching trackside as my personal coach, but the rest of my family will likely have to stay home.

The past year hasn’t been easy for most athletes, but thankfully it wasn't too disruptive for my training. Dad put a hammer circle in the back yard a few years ago, so I was able to keep practising even at the height of the lockdown. We put a net up to protect the house, and I'd throw into the front lawn, though I often missed and destroyed parts of mum’s garden. That's what I mean when I say the journey to the Olympics has been my whole family’s.

The way my training has gone, I know I can be competitive in Tokyo. For some people, just going to the Games is enough, but the way I see it, what’s the point if you’re not there to be on the podium?

Even if I fall really short of it, that’s still the goal. Now that I'm going, I don’t want just to make up numbers.