The odds of becoming an Olympian, according to past president and co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians Bill Mallon, is roughly 1 in 500,000. In other words, there’s a better chance of finding 50 four-leaf clovers than participating at the crème de la crème of athletic spectacles.
Yet Illinois State University can claim a connection to two athletes who beat the odds and represented their countries at the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Aisha Praught Leer ’12 wore the black, green, and yellow of Jamaica on the track as she competed in the 1,500-meter run. Women’s basketball player Jada Stinson, suiting up as a grad transfer from Arkansas State this winter for the Redbirds, represented a Puerto Rico team making the Olympic tournament for the first time.Appears In
The Games were held without spectators due a coronavirus (COVID-19) case increase in Japan’s capital city. But being an Olympian is a title so very few athletes can claim, and that’s special whether or not fans were there. Getting that confirmation was just as meaningful to the athletes who realized their dreams.
“I was just like, ‘wow, I’m really going to the Olympics,’” Stinson said.
This was Praught Leer’s second Olympic Games. The former All-American runner at Illinois State also competed for Jamaica in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, except in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Praught Leer—a Department of Geography, Geology, and the Environment graduate—switched events in 2019 and opted for the shorter distance. Her best collegiate race came at a similarly distanced event, the mile run, at the 2012 NCAA indoor track and field championships in Nampa, Idaho.
Her itinerary looked a little different that day than it presumably did after her Tokyo run. After placing second in 4 minutes, 37.77 seconds—a school record by nearly eight seconds—Praught Leer boarded a plane at 5 a.m. the next day for Texas.
Despite nearly winning a national championship that was broadcast on ESPN hours earlier, Praught Leer headed straight for a dig to complete her summer field experience.
“To do extraordinary things, you’ve got to be a special person,” Illinois State cross country and track and field coach Jeff Bovee said.
“Special people aren’t necessarily born that way. She’s just really somebody that has taken advantage of every opportunity that has come her way. She doesn’t pass up any experience.”
Bovee could always count on Praught Leer rising to the occasion. He saw it countless times at Illinois State, and said she was perhaps the very best he’s ever coached at learning to grow with expectations on the big stage.
Praught Leer, who obtained Jamaican citizenship after connecting with her birth father from Jamaica shortly after her college career, has carried that mindset off the track. She has spoken openly about her heritage through her social media, interviews, and sponsorships.
Praught Leer has embraced an advocacy role for young women of color. Her promotion of the sport embodies both the Olympic spirt and what it means to be a Redbird student-athlete.
“She’s always been confident, but to see her grow and be an advocate for so many others who need support, that’s just refreshing to see, and she’s so approachable,” Bovee said. “Anybody who meets her just says ‘wow.’”
Stinson played guard for a Puerto Rico squad that very well could be role models to young women in the country, as the island nation was represented in the Olympic women’s basketball tournament for the first time.
The team had breakfast at the governor’s residence, and she noticed people within the country recognizing the accomplishment.
That’s not lost on the graduate transfer who is at ISU earning a master’s degree in criminal justice sciences.
“It means a lot honestly just to be a part of history,” said Stinson, whose grandparents are from Puerto Rico. “It’s just been wonderful to represent Puerto Rico. I never thought I’d be able to do it.”
It was a whirlwind for Stinson as soon as her collegiate season ended at Arkansas State, where she led the team averaging 12.6 points per contest. The Fayetteville, North Carolina, native—who played the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons at the University of Memphis—was first called up to the Puerto Rican national team in March for the Centrobasket Tournament in El Salvador. There, she averaged 14.5 points per game in four victories and was named to the All-Tournament Team. She then helped Puerto Rico finish second, behind the United States, in the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup tournament in June.
The youngest player on Puerto Rico’s roster during the Olympics, Stinson said the physicality at the international level was much more noticeable than the college game.
She hopes that translates to her game this winter at Illinois State as she muscles through the lane for the Redbirds. She also valued the opportunity to get advice from older, more experienced players.
“It’s all a learning experience,” Stinson said. “And I feel like that’s what I’m getting out of this the most. Whether it’s just like picking the brains of the veteran players or just simply watching and seeing how they play.”
While the Games are over, being an Olympian is something nobody can take away from Praught Leer or Stinson. Not only did they beat the odds to become Olympic athletes, but they embraced the responsibilities and privileges of representing their countries and Illinois State.