After switching coaches, training partners, sponsors, events, and her home base, Aisha Praught Leer, a Jamaican national record holder, has flourished.
When Aisha Praught Leer spoke with her current coach, Joe Bosshard, for the first time, he gave it to her straight. As a steeplechaser, she couldn’t hang on in the last kilometer of the 3,000-meter race.
“You can take that one way, like, this guy doesn’t think I’m very good,” Praught Leer says. “Or, this guy thinks I’m very good, but could be better and he wants to take a chance on me.”
It was 2017 and Praught Leer, now 30, wasn’t just looking for a new coach as she moved on from the Oregon Track Club. She and her husband, Will Leer, were looking for friends. A place that felt more like home than Eugene did. They were looking for more than training schedules and track access, but also a sturdy support system and community.
“Life happiness really affects your performance, I think,” Praught Leer says. “My husband and I really needed a change in our environment.”
She had competed in the 2016 Olympics for Jamaica after meeting her Jamaican biological father for the first time in 2015 and switching her allegiance from the U.S. to honor her heritage. Her athletic endeavors became more important than simply competing. Running middle-distance events isn’t the norm in Jamaica, the home of sprinting all-stars like Usain Bolt. Praught Leer realized she could show young girls in her new-found country that the pursuit of going longer than 100 meters is worthy of their dreams.
“I thought I was going to have a short career—I was just going to run for four or five years and move on,” Praught Leer says. “But it was really at the Olympic Games in 2016 that I realized, no, I want to do this for a really long time. And, in fact, I want to be really, really good at it instead of just pretty good. I needed a more sustainable solution.”
Emma Coburn, the 2017 world steeplechase champion and Olympic bronze medalist, caught wind of Praught Leer’s search for a new situation. The two had been friendly for years on the professional track circuit. Coburn, based in Boulder, Colorado, was leaving her then-coach Mark Wetmore and her (now) husband, Bosshard, was going to take the reins—and she proposed an idea.
“[Coburn] asked if I would do this really crazy thing and consider training with her—and her at-the-time boyfriend was going to coach us,” she says. “So, I have a good gut. The gut feeling was that it was going to be a great situation and what has blossomed is better than what I could ever have imagined.”
The duo laid the groundwork for an ever-growing group of athletes. Unlike many other training enclaves across the country, though, these runners don’t necessarily share the same brand sponsors or even represent the same countries in competition. Instead, Coburn and Praught Leer have been careful to include partners whose attitudes and values contribute to a happy training environment—which is highlighted by the group’s Instagram dispatches from Boulder and from the higher altitude stints in Coburn’s hometown of Crested Butte, Colorado, 9,000 feet above sea level.
“We genuinely like what we do and we don’t really believe in the word ‘sacrifice,’” Praught Leer says. “These are all choices. We have very beautiful, charmed lives. We travel all over the world and we lean into that. We also train really hard. We train our eyeballs out. I know that if I show up, somebody’s going to be ready to go and I need to stand for them and bring the same energy to practice every day.”
Eventually they were joined by others, including pro marathoner Laura Thweatt (2:25:38); Dominique Scott-Efurd, a South African 10,000-meter Olympian; and Cory McGee, who set an indoor 1500-meter personal record on Saturday (4:06.88) in Boston at the New Balance Grand Prix.
Coburn says that every teammate brings something to the table that makes each individual better. Praught Leer is good at the “little details,” never missing a day of rehab drills. She pushes Coburn on the long tempos and shorter intervals while Coburn helps Praught Leer improve during the middle-ground efforts on the track.
Praught Leer’s most appreciated contributions, however, aren’t always in the weight room or during a run. She cooks a delicious Jamaican jerk chicken, Coburn says. And even before they officially partnered, Coburn remembers sticking with Praught Leer in the call room at the Rio Games, when they both competed in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. In an otherwise intense pre-race situation, “we were giggling together and laughing together. She had always been an ally at races.”
“Aisha’s just a very, very loving, caring, warm person and very silly and goofy and self-deprecating,” Coburn says. “She brings a wonderful light to the team. She’s always fun to hang out with and she has a lot of experience with different races and moments in her career, so she’s always good ear, too.”
Since deciding to represent Jamaica, moving to Colorado, and joining forces with Coburn and her sponsor Under Armour, Praught Leer won the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medal and made the 2017 world championships final in the steeple, as well as the 2019 final in the 1500 meters. With a pre-existing navicular fracture in her left foot that never healed properly after it broke in 2013, she decided last year to switch events to focus on the 1500 meters with an eye toward longevity and preserving her body. Praught Leer realized her future in the sport could be jeopardized if she continued hurdling and putting herself through the grueling training that the steeple demands.
Her personal best at 1500 meters outdoors is 4:05.52 and is 4:04.95 indoors—marks that she thinks she has the tools to eclipse.
“I’m a crazy person and decided to walk away from the steeple, where I was top 10 in the world, to one of the deepest, most talent-filled events,” she says. “That’s where I believe my strengths are and last year was the happiest and healthiest I’ve been in my career…I want to run as long as I can. It’s silly for me to call this a job, but it’s the best job I can imagine doing.”
And while Praught Leer focuses on making the 2020 Games in Tokyo, she also has plans to continue pushing distance running in Jamaica. She visited in March 2019 and plans to do so again this summer. Her goal is to build more awareness and close the gap between high school and college—the universities typically recruit jumpers, sprinters, and throwers, creating a lack of opportunities for athletes who want to run longer.
“We’re not seeing that latch to the distance kids, even with their great performances under limited circumstances—not having a bunch of race opportunities or miles and miles of trails. Jamaica’s just a small island,” she says.
Showing a younger generation how to push through those obstacles is something Praught Leer relishes. It is, after all, what she now knows she was born to do—and the pursuit of doing it better than before, with a coach and team who expect more of her each year, is what keeps her in the game.
“There’s certainly pressure. My job is pressure. Sports is pressure,” she says. “If there’s no pressure on me, it means I’m not performing well…it’s like a little bit of a drug. To get up and perform, I need the pressure and it’s kind of fun.”