Jamaican steeplechaser Aisha Praught Leer in action at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 (© Getty Images)
After injury nearly ruled her out of her first Olympics, Aisha Praught-Leer made history in 2018 becoming the first Jamaican woman since 1994 to win a Commonwealth title in a distance event when taking 3000m steeplechase gold.
I know I probably should say ‘marrying Will [Leer], that was my high’, but I think it’ll have to be a tie between marrying Will and winning the Commonwealth Games.
I remember the race like little screenshots in my mind. If I’m racing really well, I don’t necessarily remember everything, but I do remember three key moments from the race.
During the first kilometre when all the Kenyans went to the front and they were three abreast to slow the field down, I remember looking to my left and seeing Gen LaCaze was there and I took a deep breath knowing that I could do it.
The second moment was when Celliphine Chespol pulled away and I decided to go with her, and the third one was realising with 300 metres to go that the race wasn’t over, that I could potentially still win, making that decision to just go for it and then the total elation for five minutes afterwards.
Everything about it was wild. I guess when you’re going for a really big goal, you believe it and you think it’s possible, but nobody else thinks that. My small circle, we knew that it was a possibility, but nobody else really counted me in. In the pre-race write ups, I wasn’t even mentioned in most of them.
Will wasn’t out there with me. I flew straight back to Los Angeles because about a week later he was getting inducted into his college hall of fame. It was very strange coming back to the reality of living and training in America, where nobody knows or cares what the Commonwealth Games is and I’m riding this ‘yeah this is awesome’ high. My mother-in-law was brilliant getting everyone together to celebrate with the people who knew that it was a big deal.
Will’s college friends kept forcing us to watch the race over and over and over again. It was hilarious and every time we watched it, they would all pretend like they’d never seen it before and just erupted.
That high lasted for about two weeks and then we had to fly back to Crested Butte, get humbled by super altitude and my really fit teammates and now it already seems like such a distant memory.
In 2015 I tore my plantaris tendon leading into the World Championships, which was my first international team. I had been in such a good place, I’d been the fittest of my life, I’d been really excited to go to my first World Champs, and then I was derailed by this injury.
It wouldn’t resolve itself. I was very stubborn and didn’t want to talk about it – which I think is something beautiful that’s happening now, that athletes are talking about their struggles – but at the time I was totally uncomfortable talking about it.
It led to me having surgery in December of 2015, which if you’re counting was just months before the Olympics. I had to get that tendon removed and get my achilles sheets released and I really wasn’t sure whether I was going to make it to the Games.
I chose to not share it and that was really, really hard. I felt like I had to keep a secret from the public and so I suffered by myself. I have so many memories of being in the cycling studio of the downtown athletics club in Eugene. I would be in this dark room, downstairs in this big brick building for like two hours a day taking back-to-back cycling classes, trying to find some kind of fitness to be able to go to the Games. It was just such a sad and dark – literally and metaphorically – place that I was in that cave of just trying so hard, and keeping it to myself was crushing.
I wish I’d have been more open about my struggles at the time. If you share things with people, they don’t think poorly of you – in fact they appreciate your honesty and your openness and that we are athletes, we’re humans, we’re not robots.
Not only being transparent for yourself to lift that burden of feeling like you’re keeping a secret, but also you can get so much inspiration from outside sources that it’s almost like a helping hand in a way. If you say ‘hey I’m struggling with this’, you never know who could come out of the woodwork and be there for you. I would have absolutely shared the journey back then if I knew what I know now.
Michelle Sammet for the IAAF