Once-homeless sisters mingle with track stars at nationals

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) The three once-homeless sisters recited all the athletes they met at nationals and the souvenirs they received as they slurped shaved ice.

Nine-year-old Brooke Sheppard got pointers from high jumper Vashti Cunningham. Rainn, 11, showed off the shirt she picked out at the merchandise tent. And 12-year-old Tai, well, her family’s story moved Justin Gatlin so much that he gave her the first-place medal he won in the 100 meters at the U.S. track and field championships.

The siblings from New York City were guests of USA track and field after their rise to prominence in the sport, with their exploits bringing them medals, TV appearances and a magazine cover. It also helped get them something more – a home. They and their mom moved out of a homeless shelter and into a two-bedroom apartment in April.

“A whole different world,” Brooke said, referring to all the paths that have opened up through track.

For a few days at nationals, they were treated like royalty. The sisters were accompanied by their coach Jean Bell, their “track mom,” since their actual mother, Tonia Handy, couldn’t make the trip because of work.

“Their lives have changed so much,” said Bell, who helped develop the talent of the sisters through the Jeuness Track Club in Brooklyn. “Track keeps them focused and positive. They’re good at it. They’re really good at it.”

The trio earned medals at the AAU Junior Olympics in Houston last summer, with Rainn winning the 3,000 meters, Tai finishing runner-up in the 80-meter hurdles and Brooke taking second in the high jump. In December, the sisters appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated Kids.

Gatlin was touched by all they’ve gone through.

“I wanted them to take the medal as a symbol of believing in yourself,” Gatlin said. “People are going to say that you can’t or you’re too young or you don’t have the will to do so, but I wanted them to know they can do it. If they believe in themselves, they can do it. That’s what that medal meant to me.”

With wide eyes, they went behind-the-scenes at nationals. They even presented medals – Brooke to the women’s high jumpers, Rainn to the women’s 1,500 winners and Tai to the 100-meter hurdlers.

They socialized with 800-meter runner Ajee Wilson, along with sprinters Tori Bowie and Allyson Felix. They talked to Hall of Famer John Carlos and received gift bags containing Team USA running apparel and Nike shoes. Brooke also came away with a new appreciation for the high jump after chatting with Cunningham.

“She’s really tall and kind and talented,” Brooke said. “She jumped 6 feet, 6 inches.”

“One day, I’ll jump 6-6, too.”

Many athletes stopped to pose for pictures with the sisters, including Olympic shot put gold medalist Michelle Carter and decathlete Trey Hardee, who showed them a picture of his new baby wearing the first-place medal he captured at nationals.

“It’s been so fun,” Rainn said. “I learned new tips on how to think in my mind when I run.”

They got into track around January 2015 when their baby sitter signed them up for a track meet that did not require any entry fees. Bell happened to be there looking for new talent. She had given her business cards to each of the girls separately with the instructions to have their mother call her or just show up to practice.

“They came to practice together and I’m like, `You three are sisters?”‘ Bell recounted. “That was a bonus, because I had three good athletes, from one family. That’s easy to hold on to. They just took off from there.”

According to Bell, the Sheppard family had been homeless for around two years. They made an appearance on ABC’s “The View” in November, when co-host Whoopi Goldberg presented the family with $10,000, along with $40,000 to their track club.

Handy took a job working in the financial department of a hospital in February, with the goal of going back to school in September.

They moved into their new place on April 1. At first, the family had no furniture, so they slept on air mattresses.

Entertainer Tyler Perry saw their story and pledged to help out. Bell said Perry had the family’s apartment redecorated, with the family surprised by the remodel on a recent episode of “The View.”

Being invited to nationals meant quite a bit to them. The sisters hope to come back again – as participants.

“They’re there (in a few years) and they’re on the podium,” Bell said. “They have the talent. They have everything it takes.”

Chloe Kim, Adam Rippon, Rachael Denhollander among Time 100

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PyeongChang medalists Chloe Kim and Adam Rippon were among four Olympians named to the 2018 Time 100, along with former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse.

The other Olympians were Kevin Durant and Roger Federer on the most influential people list. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt also made it.

Kim made the list as a pioneer. Award-winning chef David Chang, a second-generation Korean American and special correspondent for NBC at the PyeongChang Olympics, wrote an essay about watching the snowboarder take halfpipe gold.

“I felt two things simultaneously: incredibly happy for her — I made her a celebratory churro ice cream sandwich, which I think she called “bomb” — but also sad, because the whole world was about to descend on this now 17-year-old girl,” he wrote. “Asian-­American fans further piled on their hopes that she would shatter Asian stereotypes on her way to the podium. And to top it all off, she was competing in her parents’ birth country, one that is notoriously judgmental of its diaspora.

“And you know what? She crushed it. Blew us all out of the water. Now the best thing Chloe Kim can do is be Chloe Kim. That’s not being selfish—that’s letting people know they don’t have to be anything that anyone says they should be.”

Cher wrote the Time essay for Rippon, the first openly gay figure skater to compete for a U.S. Olympic team.

“Adam is a skater who happens to be gay, and that represents something wonderful to young people,” she wrote. “When I was young, I had no role models—everyone looked like Sandra Dee and Doris Day. There was nobody who made me think, Oh, I could be like them. They represent me. Adam shows people that if you put blood, sweat and tears into what you’re doing, you can achieve something that’s special. You can be special. And I think that’s very brave.”

Like Rippon, the gymnast Denhollander made the Time 100 in the icon category. Olympic champion gymnast Aly Raisman, also a Nassar survivor, penned an essay.

“Rachael was there for each court session of that sentencing, each impact statement and each fellow survivor,” Raisman wrote. “This show of courage and conviction inspired many people to feel less like victims and more like survivors. We still have a long way to go before we achieve all the change that is so desperately needed, and I am grateful to be fighting alongside Rachael, my sister survivor!”

Here are Olympians and Paralympians on past Time 100 lists, counting only athletes who had competed in the Games before being listed:

2017 — Simone Biles, LeBron James, Neymar
2016 — Usain BoltCaitlyn JennerKatie LedeckySania MirzaRonda Rousey
2015 — Abby Wambach
2014 — Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams
2013 — LeBron James, Li Na, Lindsey Vonn
2012 — Novak DjokovicLionel MessiOscar Pistorius
2011 — Lionel Messi
2010 — Yuna KimSerena Williams
2009 — Rafael Nadal
2008 — Andre Agassi, Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius
2007 — Roger FedererChien Ming-Wang
2006 — Joey Cheek, Steve Nash
2005 — LeBron James
2004 — Lance Armstrong, Paula Radcliffe, Yao Ming
2000 (20th Century) — Muhammad Ali

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MORE: Rippon among Olympians in People’s Beautiful Issue

McKayla Maroney: I would have starved at Olympics without Larry Nassar

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McKayla Maroney said she thought she “would have starved at the Olympics” in 2012 if Larry Nassar didn’t bring her food.

“Your coaches are just always watching you and wanting to keep you skinny,” Maroney said in an interview with Savannah Guthrie that will air in full on an hourlong “Dateline” special Sunday at 7 p.m. ET. “There’s just other things about the culture that are also messed up that he used against us.”

Past U.S. national team coordinators Bela and Martha Karolyi also gave interviews for the Dateline special “Silent No More.”

Maroney laughed when she said Nassar bought her a loaf of bread.

Her comments were shown on TODAY on Thursday, less than a day after her 2012 Olympic champion teammate Jordyn Wieber testified at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing to discuss the roles of national governing bodies — like USA Gymnastics — in protecting athletes following the Nassar case.

“We couldn’t smile or laugh in training,” Wieber said at the hearing. “We were even afraid to eat too much in front of our coaches, who were pressured to keep us thin.”

Maroney, Wieber and other U.S. national team gymnasts had personal coaches and convened multiple times per year at the Karolyi ranch in Texas for national team camps. Wieber’s personal coach, John Geddert, was the 2012 Olympic team coach.

Geddert was suspended by USA Gymnastics in January and is facing a criminal investigation after Nassar, who molested girls at Geddert’s gym in Michigan, was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in prison on Jan. 24. Geddert said he had “zero knowledge” of Nassar’s crimes.

“Our athletes, like McKayla, are the heart and soul of USA Gymnastics, and every effort has been made to support our athletes’ development and provide the opportunities for them to achieve their dreams.” USA Gymnastics said in a statement to NBC News.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: Full transcript of McKayla Maroney’s first comments since Larry Nassar case