Aisha Praught makes strides for Jamaica in international debut
While most of the Jamaican fans inside the Bird’s Nest traveled to Beijing to cheer on their sprinting stars in the IAAF World Championships, one Jamaican athlete followed up Usain Bolt’s 100-meter victory by racing more than a full lap—seven and a half to be exact—on the track while also jumping over water barriers in the process.
Aisha Praught debuted in her Jamaican national kit on Monday morning in Beijing, becoming the first Jamaican to run the steeplechase at a global championship since Mardrea Hyman at the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. It has been 10 years since Jamaica put Hyman and Korene Hinds in the top 10 of the 2005 IAAF World Championship final in Helsinki. Hyman failed to complete the full race in Daegu and also did not finish at the 2008 Olympics.
For the first time in nearly 10 years, a Jamaican woman crossed the finish line in the event as Praught completed the race in 9:40.77 to place ninth in the heats. Her time did not qualify her for the final and she was later disqualified for lane infringement upon further review. Nonetheless, she received praise and support from Jamaican fans on social media shortly after the race.
“If I'm having a bad day and I don't want to get out of bed, I just think 'I want that final. I want that final,’” Praught told reporters after the race. “Today, it wasn't the day.”
Praught's lead-up to Beijing is interesting, and that is not referencing the fact that she did not contest the steeplechase at the Jamaican Trials and instead ran against three other women—lapping one—in a 1,500-meter race at the national championship.
Aisha’s mother, Molly, met Joseph Grant (who also goes by ‘Blue’ or ‘Still Cool’) when she was in Jamaica. The two became a couple and while she was in the middle of her pregnancy, Molly decided she wanted to go back to Wisconsin to give birth. Joseph wanted to accompany her, but was repeatedly turned down in attempts to acquire a visa into the United States.
Aisha Grant was born in Wisconsin on Dec. 14, 1989. Even after her birth, Joseph continued to pursue a United States visa and traveled across Europe looking for an embassy that could assist him. He desperately wanted to see his daughter.
Over time, his relationship with Molly became strained and the two split when Aisha was about three years old. Molly and Aisha then packed their bags and moved to Illinois.
The next chapter of Aisha’s life began when Molly met Jerome Praught, whom she married when Aisha was about four years old. When Aisha was seven, her younger brother, Spencer, was born with fair-skin, platinum blonde hair and ice-blue eyes.
“Most of my memories come from our core unit of four,” Praught said via telephone. “I have very loose memories of when it was just being my mom and I together.”
Other families in the Midwest culture were reserved and never bothered to ask Aisha any questions regarding her two Caucasian parents. Praught played along with the timid nature of everything and rarely ever posed any questions about her birth father.
As the adoption process progressed, the family decided to discuss future plans over dinner. When the news of Aisha’s adoption came up, Spencer sat speechless and in shock. Everything started making sense to him. There was a reason why some kids at the playground or at school would ask about his sister’s differences.
By 11, Aisha was officially adopted and became Aisha Praught. Any queries about her father were put to rest for another 12 years.
In that time, Praught graduated from Moline High School in the Quad Cities region of Iowa and Illinois before attending Illinois State, where she earned All-America honors on the track team. She went on to compete at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials and finished 11th in the steeplechase final. The performance showed potential and her post-collegiate running career began with a Nike sponsorship contract that would allow her to train with other top athletes in the Nike Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene, Ore.
Life went on for Molly and Jerome in Illinois. Grant left Jamaica to produce and distribute reggae music across Europe. He eventually settled in Berlin and started a family.
Neither side looked back—that is, until fall of 2012, when Praught’s curiosity resurfaced and she started asking her mother questions about her biological father. She also started exploring the option of potentially looking into her Jamaican citizenship.
“It wasn’t until then that I finally felt that I was completely assured in myself,” Praught said. “You hear a lot of bad stories about people that are adopted that meet their birth parents and it’s a terrible situation. Sometimes, they end up wishing they didn’t do it.”
The questions started to trump the nerves. Praught was secure enough in her life situation to finally want to face her father.
As with any questions these days, Praught’s mother took to the Internet to reach out to Grant. After making initial contact, he was very excited to meet his daughter for the first time. Correspondence began over Facebook and while training over in Leuven, Belgium, in July 2013, Praught started taking the steps necessary to make a face-to-face encounter happen.
Her boyfriend, Will Leer, was preparing coffee one morning when she opened up her laptop and made the call to Grant.
“I was fortunate to overhear this amazing exchange,” Leer recalled. “She called his cell from an unknown phone number off Skype and he immediately picked up. She says hello and asked for ‘Joseph.’ In his thick Jamaican accent, he says ‘Aisha.’”
Plans were made over several calls and Praught and Leer made their way to Berlin. They dropped their things, showered and cooled off at a hotel in the middle of a sweltering summer. After about an hour, it was time for the encounter.
“I went into things just super even-keeled,” Praught said. “I told myself, ‘It’s going to be what it’s going to be. That’s it.’ If anything we’ll hang out in Berlin for a couple days. I was ready for anything.”
Grant was sitting outside of an Ethiopian restaurant. On the walk over, Praught remained cool and collected. She still had no idea what she would say when they met and Leer was just as curious. When she turned the corner, she finally made eye contact with Grant. No words were exchanged.
“It was so electric that you did not want to speak to ruin it,” Praught said. “I locked eyes with this man who was so clearly my mirror image.”
Praught grew up fascinated by twins or family members who look alike because she never had that experience. When she turned a corner and saw her father, her own experience was fulfilled and tears followed a long-awaited embrace.
“When you’re prepared for something terrible, something beautiful feels even grander,” Praught reflected.
The dinner conversation flowed naturally and nearly 20 years of missing answers were finally being received. Grant said that he prayed about this encounter many times and after 20 years, his prayers had finally been answered.
After the meal, Grant took his daughter and Leer to a Jamaican hang out near the Berlin Wall. They continued chatting about their lives over a Red Stripe while reggae music played in the background.
Over the next few days, Grant taught Praught how to cook some Jamaican meals. After some convincing, he even showed off some of his own music. He was reluctant at first, because he wanted the trip and conversation to be about his daughter.
“We jumped into these roles that didn’t seem foreign,” Praught said. “It seemed natural and it was way better than I ever could have dreamed.”
“There were quite a few times that I would catch the two of them staring at one another,” Leer said. “There was definitely a feeling of, ‘Where have you been my whole life?’ but also a ‘at least we are doing this now and it is happening’ vibe.”
Word started to travel fast and before Praught knew it, her 10 half- brothers and sisters heard about the meeting and started reaching out to their long-lost sister. They had known of her existence but it was a surprise to Praught.
Sopie, Yakub, Ananda, Kibba, Phillip, Zenanie, Crystal, Josi, Anny and Emma are the names that come to Praught’s mind when she tries to remember her half-siblings. She has only met seven of the 10.
The four days went by fast, but Praught and Grant made a promise to stay in touch. When she boarded her flight back to Leuven, Praught faced a deluge of emotions to sort out her next move.
By Christmas of 2013, Praught started seriously discussing the idea of running for Jamaica with a few members of her family, Leer’s family, close friends and coach Mark Rowland. Grant was one of the few to know and played a big role in the bureaucratic process of things. If she decided to make the change, he would fully support her.
“He said whatever decision I made would be the right one. He kept saying ‘You are a daughter of the soil,’” Praught said. “It doesn't matter where I was born. These were my roots and no one can ever take that from me. He knew the decision I was going to make before I knew.”
The idea never settled in until Praught publicly announced her decision on June 1.
“It was really hard,” she said. “It was also really difficult not being at USAs this year because I was racing at Jamaican Trials the same weekend. I have such great friends that run for the U.S. and now I had to cultivate those relationships with Jamaican athletes. It was different.”
Praught found fellow U.S.-based Jamaican runner Kimarra McDonald on her first-ever flight to the island and started making new friends.
On race day, Praught was nervous heading into her event. She was up against three women, one of whom was a masters-division runner and held the fastest personal best in the field. Praught's experiences in the United States presented tougher challenges. The fretfulness did not let up until she crossed the finish line in 4:15.92 for the win.
“I didn’t know if anyone would even be watching or if it was a max exodus to the bathroom,” Praught recalled. “As soon as I crossed the finish line, all I hear is roaring. People were so pumped. I thought to myself ‘Holy cow! They watched and they liked it.’”
Residing in Eugene and having raced at Hayward Field many times, Praught is no stranger to die-hard track and field fans stopping her for a picture or a few words. But in a sprint-driven country where she was a foreigner until that night, fans took notice and stopped to congratulate Praught at dinner and the airport after the race.
Some of the flags and fans in the stands in Beijing would be for her, too.
Last month, Praught told the Jamaica Gleaner that she grew up watching Cool Runnings and saw a lot of similarities between her life and the film about a Jamaican bobsled team.
“What I’ve learned and love about the Jamaican people is that they really rally around a good thing,” Praught said. “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a children’s movie, but it is real.”
Among the people who have welcomed her to the Jamaican community is the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt. Leer daringly convinced Praught to introduce herself at the New York City Diamond League and she did so without coming off as a fangirl.
Praught could likely join Bolt at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro if she continues her distance dominance for Jamaica. It may take a while until she faces the same level of competition that the U.S. would present at its trials, but she welcomes any challenger down the road and would even develop her own competition.
“One of the first things that I told Will when the idea came up was that if I made the switch, it would be really cool to have my own distance camp in Jamaica,” Praught said. “It would take a lot of time and resources but by the end of my career I want to have a camp set up. I'm excited.”