When Aisha Praught first began running in middle school, she was a sprinter. She had posters of Olympic heroes such as 200-meter gold medalist Allyson Felix on her bedroom wall.
It was her mother who first threw out the idea that she might someday run in the Olympics herself.
“She just said ‘Oh, come on, Mom,’’’ Molly Praught remembers. “But I told her ‘You never know what might happen.’’’
Here we are more than a dozen years later and it’s happened. Aisha Praught is an Olympian.
The former Moline High School runner will represent Jamaica in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 13. If she does well enough then, she will run again in the finals of the event on August 15.
“I have been dreaming of the Olympics since I was young and working toward it for the last 10 years,’’ Aisha says. “I am now rewarded with the opportunity to race.’’
Praught hasn’t always taken the conventional path in her life so it stands to reason that she’d travel an unusual path to her dreams.
In those earliest dreams, she was wearing red, white and blue, not green and black. And she wasn’t leaping over hurdles and into water pits periodically as she made her way around the track.
Nevertheless, that’s the way it’s going to happen.
It’s all a bit mind-boggling for a free-spirited 26-year-old who grew up in western Illinois and was competing in gymnastics and cheerleading and earning a black belt in Shorei Ryu karate before she even took up running.
Praught became a Jamaican citizen last year after a couple of years of soul-searching over whether or not to take that step. As she says, it required “two years of intense introspection and probing conversation’’ to arrive at the decision.
She was raised in Moline by Jerome and Molly Praught but her biological father, Joseph “Blue’’ Grant, was a Jamaican reggae musician with whom her mother had a long-term relationship before she was born.
As a result, she qualified for citizenship in Jamaica, something she knew would greatly enhance her chances of getting to the Olympics.
She ultimately made the move and it has paid off.
When she went to Jamaica to run in that country’s Olympic trials earlier this month, she found she was the only entry in the women’s steeplechase. Jamaica produces legions of sprinters, but its distance running cupboard was bare.
“Instead of boring the crowd and having me run solo, JAAA (Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association) graciously named me to the Olympic Team with no race,’’ Praught says. “I was able, instead, to train hard in the intense heat and humidity for almost a week.’’
Praught is delighted to report that she has not been viewed as an interloper by teammates who grew up on the tropical island.
“I have a great camaraderie with the team,’’ she says. “I have been welcomed with open arms and have forged friendships with athletes I see often on the circuit.’’
Praught was a good runner at Moline High School but she hardly looked like Olympic material. She placed in the Illinois state track meet just once, finishing seventh in the 1,600 in 2008.
At Illinois State University, she was introduced to the steeplechase, an event that is not contested at the high school level. Although she initially was not crazy about a running event that required her to leap over hurdles and jump into water pits, she became very good at it. She ended up setting Missouri Valley Conference records in both the steeplechase and 1,500 meters.
She really began to blossom after college with the Oregon Track Club under the tutelage of coach Mark Rowland.
She ran the steeplechase in 9 minutes, 34.69 seconds while finishing fourth at the U.S. Outdoor Championships in Sacramento in 2014, lopping 17 seconds off her best college time.
Her development has been helped by an insatiable competitive spirit.
Praught admits in her profile on Runnerspace.com that she just can’t stand to lose.
“Just ask me to play a board game,’’ she notes. “Scary.’’
Molly has seen plenty of evidence of that through the years. She calls her daughter “cutthroat’’ and has memories of when she would get together with cousins who also were taking classes in karate.
“It always turned into a wrestling match with furniture getting tossed aside,’’ Molly says. “She always wants to come out on top.’’
Praught has spent most of this summer training and working on her fitness level in preparation for her big moment.
She spent six weeks working out at higher altitudes in Flagstaff, Arizona, and has spent the rest of the time working with Rowland in Oregon.
“My major focus this year was training,’’ she says. “Last year, I traveled and raced often to learn more about the sport and how to function well within it. This year I have spent more time in Eugene under my coach’s watchful eye.’’
She did run the steeplechase at the Portland Track Festival on June 12, but she did not even finish the race. She did it mostly to get in a few water jumps in a competitive situation.
She says she actually spends very little time working on the water jumps, which pop up seven times over the course of the nearly 2-mile race.
“I am fortunate to be quite athletic for a distance runner so I do not practice the water jump in training,’’ Praught says. “I attribute that to my non-traditional sport upbringing (karate, cheerleading and tumbling) and an early introduction to proper techniques of weightlifting and skill development …
“This year I am stronger than ever, so I have been able to complete more workouts over hurdles and stay healthy. I practice over hurdles around once a week.’’
Praught has gotten into a couple of competitive races in the past few weeks to get ready for the Olympics.
She ran a steeplechase in Andujar, Spain, earlier this month and finished fourth at a Diamond League event in London last week.
Her time there was a personal best of 9:31.75.
She likely will need to do even better than that to advance at Rio. That time would have been good for only sixth place at the U.S. Olympic trials.
However, she appears to be peaking at the right time.
“My number one objective is to make the Olympic final,’’ she says. “Anyone in the final has the chance for a magical moment. I plan to execute my race in the prelim to afford myself that possibility.’’
Soaking it in
No matter what happens, Praught says she is “most looking forward to soaking in and enjoying the Olympic atmosphere.’’
She began doing that last Monday when she and the rest of the Jamaican contingent arrived in Rio and began working out at a Brazilian air force base.
She told Molly on the phone last week that she has not yet seen any evidence of the problems many fear with the Rio games. She hasn’t seen any mosquitoes and security appears to be tight.
Molly and Jerome will travel there on August 11 to watch Aisha run.
“As long as she’s happy, she can come in dead last as far as I care,’’ Molly says. “As long as she’s able to enjoy the experience.’’
Blue Grant, who now lives in Berlin, is hoping to get there, too. Praught met him for the first time in 2013 and has developed a relationship with him and 11 half-siblings she never knew existed.
She said Grant also plans to be in attendance in October when she marries fellow runner Will Leer in Minneapolis.
“Everyone is copacetic and communicative,’’ Praught says. “We’re all excited to be on this adventure together.’’
After the Olympics and the wedding are over, it’s not clear what Praught will do. She has a degree in geology from Illinois State, but Molly said she thinks it’s very possible her daughter will continue to run and possibly take another shot at the Olympics in 2020.