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.”

Two-time Olympian becomes first woman to lead U.S. national swim team

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Two-time Olympian Lindsay Mintenko has been picked to lead the U.S. national swimming team. She is the first woman to hold the title.

USA Swimming made the announcement Wednesday.

Mintenko replaces Frank Busch, who retired Oct. 1 as managing director. She has been a member of the national team staff since 2006.

During her swimming career, Mintenko won gold medals as a U.S. team captain at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics 800m freestyle relay and added a silver in 2004 on the 400m freestyle relay.

USA Swimming also announced an organizational restructuring that will place all technical divisions, including the national team, under the oversight of chief operating officer Mike Unger.

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Grand Prix figure skating: 10 female skaters to watch

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Ten women to watch this fall as the Grand Prix figure skating season starts this week …

Yevgenia Medvedeva
Russia
Two-time world champion
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, Japan

Undefeated in nearly two years and arguably on the most dominant run since Katarina Witt in the 1980s. Medvedeva rarely misses jumps and has feather-light elegance on the ice. Off of it, she enjoys Japanese anime and K-pop. She quickly surpassed older skaters after turning senior in 2015, but now younger teens are giving chase.

Kaetlyn Osmond
Canada
2017 World silver medalist
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, France

Osmond won a Grand Prix at age 16 in 2012, but injuries dogged her the next few years. Most of all, a broken leg suffered in September 2014. She came back and was the breakout woman last season, making her first Grand Prix Final and then grabbing second at worlds behind Medvedeva.

Gabrielle Daleman
Canada
2017 World bronze medalist
Grand Prix Starts: China, U.S.

Like Osmond, would not have been picked for a world medal at the start of last season. Daleman was 17th at the Sochi Olympics, with a foot injury and one month after turning 16. She was 13th, 21st and ninth in three worlds appearances before last year. She was fourth at each of her Grand Prix starts in 2016, failing to make the six-skater Grand Prix Final, but picked up her first top-level senior international medals at Four Continents in February and worlds in March.

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Satoko Miyahara
Japan
2015 World silver medalist
Grand Prix Starts: Japan, U.S.

Miyahara’s hip injury last winter could not have come at a worse time for the Japanese federation. She missed worlds, and Japan ended up qualifying two rather than three spots for PyeongChang. Before that, Miyahara took second behind Medvedeva at the Grand Prix Final and was ranked No. 2 in the world. Now the Japanese Olympic picture is crowded with fellow teens Marin HondaMai Mihara and Wakaba Higuchi.

Karen Chen
U.S.
Fourth at 2017 Worlds
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, U.S.

Went from eighth at the 2016 U.S. Championships to winning the 2017 U.S. title and placing fourth at worlds. Chen’s clutch effort ensured the U.S. earned three women’s spots at the Olympics. The 18-year-old from the Bay Area has largely struggled in other international competitions. A best of fifth in four Grand Prix starts. Twelfth at a pair of Four Continents Championships. Already this season at two international events, she finished behind Mirai Nagasu, who was fourth at nationals.

Ashley Wagner
U.S.
2016 World silver medalist
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, U.S.

Wagner just missed the 2010 Olympic team, then made Sochi despite placing fourth at nationals. She has undoubtedly been the most consistent U.S. woman in this Olympic cycle. The 26-year-old ended a decade-long U.S. medal drought with the skate of her life at worlds in 2016. Her follow-up last season was not so memorable — her least successful campaign in six years. Still a favorite to become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.

Alina Zagitova
Russia
2017 World junior champion
Grand Prix Starts: China, France

Medvedeva’s training partner, in her first senior season, might be the skater with the best chance of dethroning her. Zagitova, born three months after the 2002 Olympics, has the highest free skate score in the world this season (.45 better than Medvedeva). Their duel(s) in December at Russian Nationals and possibly the Grand Prix Final should be appointment viewing.

Marin Honda
Japan
2016 World junior champion
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, China

Honda is the other first-year senior turning heads. She beat a field at the U.S. Classic last month that included three of the top four from last season’s U.S. Championships. Figure skating is the Winter Olympics’ marquee sport. The women’s event is its headliner. And nowhere is skating more popular than Japan. With Mao Asada‘s retirement, the spotlight will be on Honda, who already has 236,000 Instagram followers.

Carolina Kostner
Italy
2014 Olympic bronze medalist
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, Japan

The second-oldest Olympic women’s singles medalist since 1928 is the only one from the top six in Sochi who is competing this Grand Prix season. Kostner, now 30, took a break after the 2014 season, then served a backdated 21-month suspension for helping ex-boyfriend and Olympic race-walking champion Alex Schwazer evade drug testers in 2012. She finally returned in December and was sixth at worlds.

Mirai Nagasu
U.S.
Fourth at 2010 Olympics
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, Japan

Nagasu, left off the Olympic team in favor of Wagner in 2014, is arguably the best U.S. skater at the moment after topping Chen at both of her early season outings. She added the triple Axel this season, which could prime her to win her second national title, a full decade after her first at age 14. It could be an incredible comeback story, returning to the Olympics after finishing fourth in Vancouver in 2010.

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