Jamaican middle distance runner Aisha Praught is preparing for her Olympic debut at Rio 2016. As she tells us, it won’t be her first step into the unknown.
“It’s a stupid event. It’s masochistic,” says steeplechaser Aisha Praught. “But I like it. It is unpredictable.
“A lot of times you’re hurdling blind, and that very thing is almost a window of hope, too.”
Tackling barriers and water jumps aren’t the only times U.S.-born Praught has found herself stepping into the unknown. Praught, born Grant, grew up in America’s Midwest. The first years of her life, of which she doesn’t remember much, it was just her and her mother, Molly. Her parents – her father is a Jamaican reggae star – had split up when she was very little.
The mother-daughter duo moved from Wisconsin to Illinois where Molly met Jerome Praught. They got married when Aisha was about four. Three years later her baby brother Spencer was born.
“I had a great childhood and my family was really cohesive,” she recalls. Aged 11, Jerome officially became her guardian and Aisha became a Praught. But one thing about her was different. Her parents and brother were Caucasian, while Aisha’s Caribbean roots clearly showed in her appearance.
“It was just one of these things that nobody ever talked about, it’s hard to describe.”
Praught played lots of sports growing up. She did gymnastics and cheerleading and has a black belt in Shorei Ryu karate. But it was on the track that she excelled the most. She earned All-American honours at Illinois State and finished second in the mile at NCAA indoors in 2012. That summer she lined up in the steeplechase at the US Olympic Trials.
Paught (left) at the 2012 US Olympic Trials in Eugene
But Praught felt something was missing. At the end of the 2012 season – her last as a collegiate athlete – she asked her parents a question that had been nagging her for a while: where is my other dad? Their reaction couldn’t have been more positive.
“They were amazing. They’d only been waiting for me to bring it up,” she says.
Her mother had no problem finding him on Facebook, though she would later learn that it wasn’t as easy for her Jamaican family to find her because of her name change. And although finding her father “wasn’t hard”, Praught found the psychological impact was another thing altogether.
“You hear some serious horror stories of children of adoptive parents finding their biological families and it not being that great of an experience. It took me really a year to sort through my emotions about it,” she says.
In the event there was no horror story. Being an athlete proved an advantage when she was ready to meet her biological father, who had relocated to Berlin. Praught had been based in Europe for races over the summer, so she was able to arrange to meet Joseph ‘Blue’ Grant with relative ease. Accompanied by her boyfriend, US middle distance runner Will Leer, she met her dad at an Ethiopian restaurant.
Her steeplechase mindset would help. “I was really prepared for anything,” she recalls.
“We didn’t exactly know who we’re looking for. I think it’s what people on Tinder dates do, just sweeping the area!
“But I did not have to take more than one sweep. I just looked at him like ‘oh my gosh that’s me, that’s my mirror image’. It was intense standing across from someone who you look just like, yet you don’t know.”
When Aisha met Joseph (📷 William Leer)
The pair instantly connected. She learnt she had 10 other siblings, who all began reaching out to her. Reconnecting with her heritage led Praught, a member of the Eugene-based Oregon Track Club Elite, to make “the conscious decision officially to run for Jamaica” in 2015.
Again, she didn’t know what to expect. There were “naysayers and negative things” surrounding her decision, but as she lined up for the 1500m at the 2015 Jamaican nationals alongside only three other women – there were no other competitors in the steeplechase – she knew she’d made the right decision.
She won comfortably in 4:15.92 and went on to represent the black, green and yellow at the Beijing World Championships in the steeplechase. She ended up being disqualified for a lane infringement, but it was still a proud moment for the Jamaican.
Her running career has provided more opportunities to bond with her family since. Racing in meets on the island has allowed to combine work with getting to know her siblings better.
Though she has found balance off the track, her time on it has been more fractured over the last 12 months. She has run few competitive races this year due to “a late start with some injuries”. Yet she ran 4:11.57 in Heusden in the middle of July, her third fastest 1500m ever. A week later she made her 2016 steepelchase debut at the London Diamond League, coming away with a 9:31.75 PB. It has given her a confidence boost at just the right time.
Praught lives and trains in Eugene as part of OTC Elite (📷 Sprintstep)
“There were times this year where I thought ‘ok this is crazy. Is this gonna work? Am I doing the right thing?’,” she says.
“Now I’m thinking ‘oh okay, Mark [Rowland, OTC Elite coach and 1988 Olympic steeple bronze medallist] was right’. He’s like a mad scientist.”
Aside from family, Praught has found the success of close friends has fuelled her competitive fire.
“One of my best friends is [tenacious 2015 world 10,000m bronze medallist] Emily Infeld. I have this little voice in my head – Emily’s voice – that’s like ‘hey you can do anything’, so I believe in that possibility. I’m gonna claw my way into the final.
“That’s what I’ve been thinking about when training gets tough, grinding those last reps, like ‘what if this was the final, what would you do?’. That’s been the sole focus.”
Which is why in Rio, Praught won’t just be representing herself as a runner, but all the people who have contributed to her getting to the start line.
“It’s been many years in the making,” she adds. “It was a whole human transformative experience. Everyone has had separate contributions to who I am.”
A Midwesterner. An All–American. A Jamaican. An Olympian.