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On the Right Track: Homeless Runners Win Hearts and Medals

Running has always come naturally for the Sheppard Sisters.
Dec. 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated Kids
Dec. 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated KidsSports Illustrated Kids

Running has always come naturally for the Sheppard Sisters.

Sometimes it was motivated by sibling rivalry to be the fastest. Sometimes it was just about getting to the next block in their Brooklyn neighborhood.

But Tai, Rainn and Brooke's athletic talents have taken them on an unexpected journey.

This year they landed on the December edition of Sports Illustrated Kids and were dubbed the magazine's SportsKids of the Year in 2016.

“After we tried out (for track) we felt like it was an event that we could really focus on, that we could really enjoy. It gives us an idea that we are working hard for something,” said Brooke, 9, the youngest of the sisters.

The junior Olympians have faced numerous hurdles in their quest for gold.

Their half-brother was shot and killed three years ago. The family subsequently fell on hard times and were evicted from their home. They have been living in a two-bedroom unit in a homeless shelter with their mother Tonia Handy since last September.

Grief gave way to hope when the family ran into Jean Bell, the coach and founder of Jeuness Track Club.

“Everything happens for a reason I believe,” Handy said. “We joined Jeuness Track Team in January and we became homeless later that year. It was meant for us to have this support system through this time.”

The volunteer-based staff stresses education and treating others equally regardless of what their life looks like outside of practice, Bell said. The club also tries to make sure that every girl graduates from high school with at least one athletic scholarship offer.

“When I first saw my girls run, I went a little berserk because it was practice and you don’t cheer in practices but I was cheering like they were running in the Olympics and I was the only parent doing just that,” said Handy who says running is not in the genes.

The family sees Bell as a safe haven, mother, mentor and friend. The daughter of a NYPD police officer and educator, Bell said she saw that running could be a lifeline for the Sheppard sisters.

“I remember saying that this is a bad time to have girls stop running because they get into all sorts of problems, as you might imagine,” Bell said.

She founded the track club, Jeuness, in 1985 after track clubs in the area lost funding.

Back then the club had twelve girls on the team. Now it has 32.

Related: Three Sisters Go From Homeless Shelter to Junior Track Stardom

Bell said her mission for each girl is to be “responsible for not just their belongings but for themselves, for their education. Responsible for what they want to get out of running track and what they want to get out of life basically.”

The lesson stuck.

The girls practice four days a week, two hours a day. They have meets on Saturdays or Sundays.

The Sheppard sisters say track practices can be challenging, but they are determined to chase their dreams.

Sheppard Sisters, Rainn, Tai, and Brooke, celebrate their accomplishments after 2016 AAU Junior Olympics in Houston, Texas.
Sheppard Sisters, Rainn, Tai, and Brooke, celebrate their accomplishments after 2016 AAU Junior Olympics in Houston, Texas.Danesha Gomes

“Coaches always tell me that our opponents are always training and that we’re not the only ones training too. Track is mental and physical,” said Rainn, who is 10.

The Sheppard Sisters have gained increased media attention after being featured in Sports Illustrated Kids. The girls attended the SI Award Ceremony with such sports idols as Michael Phelps who won Greatest Olympian of All-Time, LeBron James who won 2016 Sportsperson of the Year and even the Knowles — Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

“(Beyoncé) told us to never give up on our dreams and she encouraged me,” said Brooke, the youngest of the bunch.

Dec. 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated Kids
Dec. 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated KidsSports Illustrated Kids

The girls described the Sports Illustrated awards as a life changing moment that let the world know their story. It also inspired them to keep working hard.

Tai, the oldest of the Sheppard sisters, says being 11 has been the best year of her life.

She placed second in the 80-meter hurdles in her age group in Houston in July — her second time ever competing at the meet. She hopes to qualify for the AAU Junior Olympic Games every year.

Her mother describes her as "focused" and says "preparation" should be her middle name.

Rainn is described by her mom as the more emotional of the three siblings and “the glue” that keeps everyone together. Rainn won a gold medal in the 3,000 meter run while attending a meet in Houston while also competing in events such as 1500 meter and 4 by 8 meet relay (four people running 800 meters each).

Rainn “to be the first American woman to win a New York City Marathon and go to the Olympics,” where she will a lot of gold medals.

And she says she want to go to college in Oregon and "get an actual degree like a bachelor’s in something or a master's.”

Brooke, who is the youngest of the bunch, is known as very playful but determined to work just as hard as her older sisters.She placed second in high jump in Houston. Her goals are to "jump 4 feet and 12 inches and make it to finals and get a lot of scholarships to save up for college to be a judge but also learn science".

In the meantime, their mother is looking for better places in Brooklyn to keep the girls close to their track team.

“You know, these girls are really special," she said. "Their last name Sheppard, they own it and they keep me afloat.”