Editor’s note: Former Illinois State women’s track and field standout Aisha Praught placed 14th in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase finals at the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, on August 15. See the recap on GoRedbirds.com.

Aisha who?

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That’s what people were asking after future track and field Olympian Aisha Praught ’12 finished second place in the mile at the 2012 Indoor NCAA Championships. Immediately after, Illinois State University coach Jeff Bovee was contacted by agents and professional coaches who wanted to represent her.

Praught was on ESPN and by 5 a.m. the next day, Bovee was dropping the Redbird student-athlete off at the airport because the geology major didn’t want to miss her summer field experience in Texas.

“Here she has this mind-blowing experience at the NCAA, completely surprising everybody, and she didn’t want to miss her dig,” Bovee said.

Four years later the middle distance runner, who is a dual citizen because of her Jamaican roots, will make her Olympic debut at the Summer Games in Rio as a member of the black and green Team Jamaica. She’ll compete in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, an athletic obstacle course just short of a 2-mile run. Her event is at 8:05 a.m. Central Time on August 13 and 8:25 a.m. August 15. She’s running well. Last month in London she had a personal best of 9:31.75 in the event.

Praught credits Bovee, Illinois State’s director of track and field and cross country, with helping her prepare for the world’s best athletes by moving her into national competition in college.

“I was winning races within the region, but when I was exposed to top competition I realized I had to raise my game. Over my junior and senior years, Coach Bovee helped transform me into an athlete that could compete with anyone in the NCAA.”

Aisha Praught runs
Illinois State alum Aisha Praught became the leader of the Redbird cross country team.

Growing into an All-American

Praught was born in Wisconsin. Her mother moved to Illinois and married Jerome Praught when she was about 4. The natural athlete excelled in gymnastics, dance, and earned a black belt in karate. But track was her sport. Bovee watched her at Moline High School. Although he didn’t know he was looking at a future Olympian, he saw something.

“Aisha always had a ton of talent and just needed the right environment to develop. Her biggest attributes were her tenacious competitive nature, her eagerness to learn from her success and failures, and her incredible positive attitude. What she brought to the table beyond the running made me even more interested in her.”

Despite recurring foot injuries, she was an All-American at Illinois State, breaking Redbird records in the mile run, 1,500 meters and 3,000-meter steeplechase. When she qualified for the Olympic trials, she was wearing the Redbird uniform.

Between her junior and senior year was a turning point. She told Bovee she wanted to run professionally and asked for his help. He told the student-athlete she could compete with the best women in the NCAA and beyond, but she didn’t believe it so he focused on building her confidence.

She dialed in, he said, changing her diet and sleeping habits, not easy for a college student. Over the next 12 months, she transformed. She was the leader of the Redbird cross country team, which won its first Missouri Valley Conference title in more than 20 years in 2011.

“Aisha was a tremendous leader for our team,” her coach said. “She was the bright light, very caring.”

Jamaican roots

Her Olympic dream took hold after her 2012 NCAA finish. The Nike-sponsored athlete lives and trains in Eugene, Oregon. But there’s even more to her story. With all her running success, there was something missing from her personal life. She decided to search for her birth father in Jamaica. That may be the coolest part of her story, Bovee said.

A Facebook search quickly turned up Joseph Grant, a reggae musician who had moved from Jamaica to Berlin. With her fiancé, runner Will Leer, Praught traveled to meet him. The minute she saw him, she saw herself.

“She was able to become who she is now because of understanding where she came from,” her coach said. “She had that missing piece. Before, she could never connect all the dots.”

That led to another big decision, whether to apply for Jamaican citizenship so she could represent team Jamaica in the Olympics. She asked Bovee for his advice, and he encouraged her.

“Aisha is a very happy person who is living her dream. I couldn’t be more proud of her. She is a wonderful representative of ISU.”

After the Olympics, she’ll rest for a couple of weeks and then start running again. There’s one run she wouldn’t miss, but it’s not competitive. At an early morning hour on October 15, she’ll take off for the “bride’s run” along the shores of the Mississippi in Minneapolis—her wedding day. There’s a “groom’s run” planned too, for the American mid-distance runner.

No steeple experience required, the invitation read.

Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.