(09-Jun) -- After a surprising and emotional multi-year search for her cultural roots, steeplechaser Aisha Praught has become a Jamaican citizen and will represent that Caribbean nation in international competition beginning this summer. If selected by the Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association, she hopes to compete in their yellow, black and green kit at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in August.
The 25 year-old middle distance runner and steeplechaser --who lives and trains in Eugene, Ore., with the Nike-sponsored Oregon Track Club Elite-- completed a search for her birth father in 2013 which took her far from the American Midwest where she grew-up in Moline, Ill., the cocoa-skinned daughter of two white parents. She knew she was different, and longed to know more about where she came from.
"I knew from an early age that I was Jamaican, but it wasn't in my everyday life so much," Praught told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview from Eugene last night. "My Mom and and my Dad are both Caucasian. So, I grew up in a very uncommon family, especially for the Midwest."
Years before her birth, Praught's mother, Molly, had fallen in love with a Jamaican musician, Joseph "Blue" Grant, after spending some time in Kingston. The two were together for several years (and even worked together), but their relationship ended after Molly decided to give birth to Aisha in the United States.
Four years later, after moving from Wisconsin to Illinois, Molly married Jerome Praught, and the couple raised Aisha who would go on to compete for Illinois State University during her NCAA career. Questions kept coming up in her mind about where she came from.
"I was a very curious child and really wanted to know about my heritage," Praught recounted. "As I became an adult I wanted to seek my heritage more. My Mom was great and my Dad was in full support of it. We reached out to find my birth father."
Grant --a singer, songwriter, producer and musician-- had relocated from Jamaica to Berlin. Praught, with longtime boyfriend and miler Will Leer, made their way to Berlin in 2013 while they were in Europe for the summer track season. They arranged to meet Grant, and the experience was transformative. When she turned the street corner for the final steps to the Ethiopian restaurant where they would meet, she said their "eyes locked." She knew immediately it was her father.
"It was incredible; he was my mirror image," Praught said, still marveling at the experience. "It was such a special time for me to discover a life that I didn't know I had. Here I am standing, staring at this man."
With the lines of communication now open, Praught became closer with Grant and learned more about her extended family, including the fact that she had 11 half-siblings. She began to feel Jamaican.
"It did just sort of evolve on its own," she explained. "He's a reggae musician. He's incredibly charismatic and incredibly kind. It's a culture shock to me that he's a real Rasta guy."
While the decision to acquire Jamaican citizenship was relatively easy (many Americans have dual citizenship), it was more a more difficult choice to switch her allegiance for competition purposes. After all, Praught had been raised in the United States, and all of her athlete development had taken place here.
But ultimately, she decided that representing Jamaica would probably provide her with more opportunities and gave her a unique chance to honor her heritage. A sprint-crazed nation, Jamaica has a dearth of middle and long distance runners. Praught, who has a 1500m and 3000m steeplechase bests of 4:05.52 and 9:34.69, respectively, could potentially compete in two events in Beijing. Jamaica has no top class athletes in those disciplines, and Praught would instantly be their best athlete --male or female-- in both events.
"It's almost as if I'm a novelty," said Praught. "Distance running (in Jamaica) is not cool. You've got all the kids trying to emulate Usain Bolt in the starting blocks."
She also said that she got full support from her coach, Mark Rowland, and that she'll remain a member of the Oregon Track Club Elite.
Praught plans to compete in the Jamaican Athletics Championships from June 25th to 28th, the same weekend the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships will be held in Eugene where she lives. At last summer's USA Championships, she finished fourth in the steeplechase. She'll be in for a completely different kind of national meet in Jamaica.
"Right now there are zero women entered in the steeplechase," she deadpanned. "I may be racing myself."
PHOTO: Aisha Praught last February after competing in the NYRR Millrose Games in New York City (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly).