Athletics: High jump champ could have been a Kiwi

By Steve Landells

Reigning world high jump champion Jesse Williams considered competing in the black singlet of New Zealand - but went on to qualify for the US world championship team seven years ago.

Williams, who landed the global crown in Daegu last year with a leap of 2.35m, was eligible to compete as a Kiwi through his Auckland-born parents.

However, despite contemplating the move he met his target of making the US team in 2005 and closed the door on the switch.

"I was thinking about competing for New Zealand for a little while," said the Californian-born athlete. "It was in 2005 when I was trying to get the A standard [for the world championships]. It [the switch to New Zealand] was in the back of my head and I said to myself, if I don't get the A standard, maybe I should try and compete for New Zealand. It would be easier making the team."

That season, however, saw Williams make a major breakthrough. He achieved a personal best of 2.30m - the benchmark height for a world-class jumper - and qualify for the world championships in Helsinki.

Oregon-based Williams, who celebrated his 29th birthday two days after Christmas, has not been to New Zealand since he was aged six but is keen to return to his parents' homeland.

"As I've gotten older, I've developed a stronger relationship with my family members who are still out there in New Zealand," he said.

"I'd love to do some meets out there before I retire and check out the country a bit more. I've heard it's beautiful."

Williams, whose personal best is 2.37m, qualified for the Olympic final in London but finished only ninth following an injury-riddled build up to the Games.

His parents, Jackie and David, left New Zealand to emigrate to the US in the early 1980s. His two older siblings were born in New Zealand but Williams, the youngest of three, was born in Modesto, California. His father was a pastor but now works as a booking agent for Delta Airlines. His mother is a dental hygienist.

The New Zealand high jump record stands at 2.30m set by Glenn Howard in 2000.

Meanwhile, US-based Kiwi Julia Ratcliffe's hopes of success at next year's world championships were given a boost after she shattered the Ivy League record in the 20lb weight throw.

The New Zealand hammer throw record holder, who placed fourth at last year's world junior championships in Barcelona, three times exceeded the previous record mark of 19.21m, with a fifth round throw of 19.58m her best effort at the Princeton New Year's Invitational recently.

The weight throw - although not officially recognised by the IAAF - is a popular event on the US collegiate indoor circuit and the technique needed to excel in the event is similar to the hammer.

Hamilton-raised Ratcliffe, who moved to study economics at Princeton University in August, has started her competitive athletics career for the New Jersey-based Ivy League institution in style and was delighted with her performance in her debut in the event.

"That was my first competitive weight competition and I had no idea how it would go, so to get the record felt great. The technique is quite similar to hammer but it's a lot more strength-based."

The 19-year-old believes she has improved her strength since arriving in the US and is looking forward to what she can achieve in the hammer next year.

"Setting the New Zealand record in Barcelona really showed me what hard work can achieve," said Ratcliffe.

"I worked so hard over the first half of 2012 and at times it was really difficult because there were no competitions in New Zealand after April. It seemed like such a distant goal. But I'm so glad I did it."

Next year the teenager said her main goals were "the world student games in Kazan, Russia, or, if things go really well, the world championships in Moscow".

- Herald on Sunday

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