A drive for perpetual personal growth defines the career of two-time Olympian Aisha Praught-Leer.
Born and raised in Illinois, she first made her name in the track and field world as a fierce competitor in the grueling 3000-meter steeplechase. After reconnecting with the family of her biological father, reggae singer Joseph “Blue” Grant of The Still Cool Band, in 2014, she made the move to represent Team Jamaica, adding an exciting new layer to the Jamaican track and field story. Upending things yet again, she has since added the 1500- and 3000-meter runs to her repertoire of events, building credibility in middle-distance categories often overlooked by sprint-dominant Team Jamaica.
In a first-person essay, she shares the inspiring story of a career that’s taken her from Moline, Illinois, to Kingston, to her current base of Boulder, Colorado, while offering us a glimpse into the fierce discipline it takes to compete at the highest levels of international track and field. Scroll on for photos from Martei Korley’s shoot with Aisha from the Downtown Kingston waterfront.
Everyone who knows me knows my story of meeting my Jamaican family in 2014.
My high moments are well publicized: Winning medals, making teams and global finals in events Jamaica never has before.
What our country might not see is all of the work that goes on behind the scenes. Distance runners are different. I live an almost monk-like existence 50 weeks a year. Discipline is more important than motivation as a distance runner. For me, it’s 75 miles a week on average (often, two runs a day); three gym sessions; a massage; bi-weekly sports psych session; 9 hours of sleep a day; and a big focus on fueling enough.
This is basically run, eat, sleep and repeat. None of this guarantees success. We fly so close to the sun with our training at times, to be able to compete against the best in the world, that injuries often happen. It’s a quiet life, but I love it because of my team. In 2017, Emma Coburn and I broke off from our previously well-established coaches and programs and took a chance to train together with her husband as our coach. We now have Team Boss: 14 athletes and two coaches. 13 women who are some of the best in the world, from 800m to marathon, and one male marathoner who is the best in the U.S.
Three words I think about as I’m honing in on the end of my career are:
Legacy: I want to be remembered for excellence, but doing it my way. Striking out and taking a risk to make myself a better athlete by joining someone who has achieved more than me. Helping to create a team that truly likes each other. That competes together, not against each other. That believes success isn’t finite, and when one succeeds we all succeed. I have made global finals in two events: The steeplechase (three finals) and the 1500m, in which I came in sixth at the 2018 World Indoor Championships. I have two medals: A gold in the steeplechase at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and a silver medal in the 1500m at the 2019 Pan Am Games. I’m approaching the opportunity to add a third event to the legacy, the 5000m.
I am truly a trailblazer for Jamaica — Even though I’m not winning medals at World Championships, I am the first to accomplish any of these feats. I have five national records and am chasing more.
Advocacy: I’ve been a professional for 10 years. I was inspired by my husband’s career in athlete advocacy. He is a retired American miler who volunteered as an athlete advocate his whole career and now serves on the board of USA Track & Field. In 2019, I was elected by my peers at Doha World Champs to serve on the World Athletics Athletes Commission. At the time I didn’t understand the gravity of this position, and grew to greatly appreciate the amount of influence our commission can have on the sport.
All decisions in WA have to be run by us. We dissent often. We’re not always heard, but we have been able to change the tide on important issues like reinstating all events to the diamond league. My favorite work thus far has been on establishing a Human Rights framework for World Athletics that was voted on and accepted. I was just elected in Budapest for a second term, receiving the third most votes behind legendary athletes Dame Val Adams and Renaud Lavillenie. I felt honored by the strong vote of confidence from my peers. My next appointment is my most challenging, and that will be working on gender rules for our sport moving forward.
As a dual citizen, I’m also trying to better all of my environments. Following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, I wanted to find an arena to place my energy that was more effective than social media posts. I established the Team Boss Mile, benefiting the Sachs Foundation. The Sachs Foundation provides large college scholarships for Black students in Colorado, where I live. I believe in opportunity and education and the latest Supreme Court decision in the U.S. to strike down affirmative action strengthens the need for programs like those of the Sachs Foundation.
Our third iteration of the Team Boss Mile will take place on November 8th and we will have hundreds of middle and high schoolers racing a mile, paced by members of our team. We’ve raised tens of thousands of USD and I want to keep that going.
Possibility: I ran for Jamaica because I wanted to honor my heritage and show there are more pathways to success than the 100m. The last few years have been a bumpy ride with a near career-ending injury two weeks before the Tokyo Olympics; competing through blinding pain to represent our country in a new event; and the reconstructive knee surgery that followed. It has been the greatest challenge of my life to return from this injury.
I have a naturally positive outlook, so many people haven’t understood how devastating and difficult this injury has been. I had to take six months of absolutely no aerobic training—which transformed me from an elite athlete to a normal person. The road to gain fitness back has truly taken two years. I lost literally thousands of miles my body needed, and I had to run every step of them to get it back because I do not believe in shortcuts. I have already shown the next generation of Jamaican girls that you can run far and have success. I also want to show them what it looks like to get knocked down, struggle beautifully and storm back to the top.
After retirement, I want to spend more time cultivating the next generation and hopefully become a National Team Coach for distance running.