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.”

Snowboarders, freeskiers get last Olympic qualifying chance

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Many stars already qualified for PyeongChang — Shaun WhiteChloe KimJamie Anderson among them — but three Olympic gold medalists go into the last U.S. snowboard/freeski qualifier this week with work to do.

Two of them are in the same event.

Kelly Clark and Hannah Teter, the 2002 and 2006 Olympic snowboard halfpipe champions, are in different places.

Clark, 34, is trying to break her own record as the oldest U.S. halfpipe rider in Olympic history.

She can also join cross-country skier Kikkan Randall (and potentially Julia Mancuso) in PyeongChang as the only American women to compete in five Winter Olympics.

That should happen.

Clark has a pair of podium finishes from the first three Olympic qualifiers.

She’ll make the PyeongChang team this weekend (or be named the lone available discretionary pick shortly thereafter) barring some crazy finishes at her home halfpipe in Mammoth Mountain, Calif., this week.

Teter, 30, cannot feel as safe.

She finished fifth, ninth and ninth in the three qualifiers so far (and never among the top four Americans).

Four years ago, Teter did not qualify automatically for the Olympic team but was chosen with the lone discretionary spot. She followed her 2006 gold and 2010 silver with a fourth-place finish in Sochi.

Though Sochi gold medalist Kaitlyn Farrington retired, the rise of teens Maddie Mastro and Kim put Teter in an even more precarious spot in this Olympic qualifying season.

Simply put, Teter cannot like her Olympic chances unless she wins this week. And she hasn’t won a top-level contest in nearly nine years.

Another Olympic champion is on the ropes in Mammoth. That’s Joss Christensen, the surprise Sochi ski slopestyle gold medalist.

Christensen returned from a May 10 torn ACL and meniscus last week to finish 43rd and 14th in two qualifiers.

He gets two final qualifiers this week to prove he deserves to defend his Olympic title in PyeongChang.

The teammates who joined Christensen on the Sochi podium — Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper — are in much safer shape.

The Olympic qualifying standings and Mammoth broadcast schedule:

Snowboard Halfpipe
Qualifying Standings 
(through three of four events)
Three riders auto qualify per gender; one possible discretionary spot
1. Shaun White — 1,800* (QUALIFIED)
1. Ben Ferguson — 1,800* (QUALIFIED)

1. Jake Pates — 1,800* (QUALIFIED)
4. Danny Davis — 1,200 (3rd and 3rd)
5. Chase Josey — 1,000 (4th and 4th)
6. Gabe Ferguson — 950 (4th and 5th)

1. Chloe Kim — 2,000* (QUALIFIED)
2. Maddie Mastro — 1,600* (2nd and 2nd)
3. Kelly Clark — 1,400* (2nd and 3rd)
4. Arielle Gold — 1,100* (3rd and 4th)
5. Hannah Teter — 900 (5th and 5th)
6. Elena Hight — 850 (5th and 6th)
*Has automatic qualifying minimum of one top-three result against whole field.

Men: Nobody can clinch an automatic spot after White, Pates and Ferguson took them all last week. However, Davis (Sochi Olympian), Josey (fourth at 2017 X Games) and Gabe Ferguson (Ben’s younger brother) know that their results this week will go a long way in the eyes of a selection committee deciding on a possible fourth Olympic team member.

Women: There has been a clear tier system in U.S. women’s halfpipe this season. Kim has been in a class of her own. Then Mastro, Clark and Gold. Then Teter and Hight. Teter and Hight, who made Olympic debuts in 2006 (where Teter won gold), need to not only break into the Mastro-Clark-Gold tier this week, but also likely must beat them all to justify a spot on the Olympic team.

Snowboard Big Air/Slopestyle (through four of five events)
Three riders auto qualify per gender; one possible discretionary spot
1. Chris Corning — 2,000* QUALIFIED
1. Red Gerard — 2,000* QUALIFIED
3. Chandler Hunt — 1,400* (2nd and 3rd)
4. Kyle Mack — 1,000* (2nd and 13th)
5. Ryan Stassel — 1,400 (2nd and 3rd)
6. Judd Henkes — 1,100 (3rd and 4th)

1. Jamie Anderson — 2,000* QUALIFIED
2. Julia Marino — 1,600* (1st and 3rd)
3. Hailey Langland — 1,600* (2nd and 2nd)
4. Jessika Jenson — 1,600 (1st and 3rd)
5. Ty Walker — 1,300 (2nd and 4th)
*Has automatic qualifying minimum of one top-three result against entire field.

Men: Hunt takes the last automatic Olympic spot available if he’s the top American finisher in Mammoth (aside from Corning and Gerard). Stassel is the lone 2014 Olympian in the running (Sochi gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg retired). Henkes, born in 2001, is trying to become the youngest member of the Olympic team across all sports.

Women: It looks like all three Olympic medal favorites are going to PyeongChang. Sochi gold medalist Jamie Anderson is in as the top American finisher in the first and third qualifiers. X Games slopestyle champ Marino was the top American in the second qualifier. X Games big air champ Langland was right behind Anderson in the first and third qualifiers. Neither Marino nor Langland made the final last week, which kept Jenson and Walker in the running for automatic spots. But neither Jenson nor Walker has a top-three finish against an entire field yet, keeping them behind Marino and Langland.

Ski Halfpipe (through four of five events)
Three skiers can auto qualify per gender; up to four named to Olympic team
1. David Wise — 200** QUALIFIED
2. Alex Ferreira — 180** (1st and 2nd)
3. Aaron Blunck — 140** (2nd and 3rd)
4. Torin Yater-Wallace — 150* (1st and 4th)
5. Gus Kenworthy — 116* (2nd and 7th)

1. Maddie Bowman — 140** QUALIFIED
2. Devin Logan — 130* (2nd and 4th)
2. Brita Sigourney — 130* (2nd and 4th)
4. Annalisa Drew — 95 (4th and 5th)
5. Carly Margulies — 72 (6th and 7th)
**Has automatic qualifying minimum of two top-three results.
*Has one top-three result.

Men: Somebody with great credentials is going to be left off the team. As of now, that would either be Yater-Wallace, the three-time X Games medalist who came back from life support to win the first Olympic qualifier last February, or Kenworthy, the Sochi slopestyle silver medalist. In 2014, a committee gave the last spot on the Olympic team to Yater-Wallace over Kenworthy.

Women: The top four in the standings are all Sochi Olympians, but only Bowman has qualified so far and only Logan and Sigourney can clinch in Mammoth. Drew should be safe for the potential fourth spot if she finishers higher than Margulies this week, but she wasn’t able to do that in either of the last two qualifiers.

Ski Slopestyle (women through four of five events; men through three of five)
Three skiers can auto qualify per gender; up to four named to Olympic team
1. Maggie Voisin — 180** QUALIFIED

2. Devin Logan — 90 (4th and 6th)
3. Darian Stevens — 81 (5th and 7th)
4. Julia Krass — 72 (4th and 12th)
5. Taylor Lundquist — 65 (7th and 9th)

1. Nick Goepper — 160** (2nd and 2nd)
2. Gus Kenworthy — 140* (1st and 6th)
3. McRae Williams — 79 (4th and 9th)
3. Quinn Wolferman — 79 (4th and 9th)
5. Alex Hall — 57 (5th and 19th)
**Has automatic qualifying minimum of two top-three results.
*Has one top-three result.

Women: Nobody can clinch an Olympic spot because nobody other than Voisin made a podium in the first four qualifiers. Voisin, Logan and Krass all made the Sochi team (Logan took silver). Stevens just missed the team in 2014.

Men: Anything can happen with two of the five qualifiers to be held this weekend. None of the men who swept the Sochi podium are 100 percent safe, though Goepper has to like his chances. Kenworthy, too, after a much-needed win in Snowmass, Colo., last week. The man absent from the above standings is gold medalist Joss Christensen. He returned from a May 10 torn ACL and meniscus last week to finish 43rd and 14th in two qualifiers.

Mammoth Finals (all times Eastern)
Friday

Ski Halfpipe — 9:30-11 p.m. (NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)

Saturday
Ski Slopestyle (#1) — 12:30-2 p.m. (NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)
Snowboard Slopestyle — 5-6 p.m. (NBC, NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)
Snowboard Halfpipe — 9:30-11 p.m. (NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)

Sunday
Ski Slopestyle (#2) — 4:30-6 p.m. (NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)

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VIDEO: Shaun White scores perfect 100 to qualify for Olympics

South, North Korea agree to form joint Olympic team, march together

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea and North Korea agreed Wednesday to form their first unified Olympic team and march together in the Opening Ceremony for the first time since 2006.

The agreements still require approval from the International Olympic Committee.

But they are the most prominent steps toward rapprochement achieved by the Koreas since they recently began exploring cooperation during the Olympics.

During their third day of talks at the border in about a week, senior officials reached a package of agreements including fielding a joint women’s hockey team and marching together under a blue and white “unification flag” depicting their peninsula in the Opening Ceremony, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.

A joint statement distributed by the ministry said the North Korean Olympic delegation will travel to South Korea across their heavily fortified land border before the Feb. 9-25 PyeongChang Games.

It said the delegation will include a 230-member cheering group, a 30-member taekwondo demonstration team, journalists, athletes and officials.

Ahead of the Olympics, the Koreas will hold a joint cultural event at the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain and have non-Olympic skiers train together at the North’s Masik ski resort, according to the statement.

It said the North also plans to send a 150-strong delegation to the Paralympics in March. The North earlier said it would send a 140-member art troupe.

The agreements are highly symbolic and emotional.

But it’s still not clear how many North Korean athletes will come to PyeongChang because none are currently qualified.

South Korean media have predicted only up to 10 North Korean athletes will end up being covered by an additional quota from the IOC.

A pair of North Korean figure skaters qualified for this year’s Olympics, but North Korea missed a deadline to confirm their participation.

The IOC said recently it has “kept the door open” for North Korea to take part in the Games.

IOC officials are to meet with sports and government officials from the two Koreas and officials from the PyeongChang organizing committee in Switzerland on Saturday.

The IOC said in statement Wednesday that it has “taken note of a number of interesting proposals from different sources.”

“There are many considerations with regard to the impact of these proposals on the other participating NOCs (national Olympic committees) and athletes. After having taken all this into consideration, the IOC will take its final decisions on Saturday in Lausanne,” it said.

The two Koreas sent joint teams to major international sports events twice previously, both in 1991.

One event was the world table tennis championships in Chiba, Japan, where the women’s team won the championship by beating the powerful Chinese, and the other was soccer’s World Youth Championship in Portugal, where the Korean team reached the quarterfinals.

During an era of detente in the 2000s, their athletes marched together in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of nine international sporting events including the 2000, 2004 and 2006 Olympics, but they failed to produce a joint team.

Their last joint march was at the Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, in 2007.

The current reconciliation mood began after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s speech that he was willing to send a delegation to the Games.

 

 

South Korea wants the IOC to allow its hockey team’s 23-player Olympic roster to be expanded so that several North Korean players can be added without removing any of the South Korean players.

But there are worries in South Korea that adding new players less than a month before the Olympics will weaken the team and deprive South Korean players of playing time.

Chief South Korean delegate Chun Hae-sung said the government is well aware of such concerns and North Korea has agreed that the South Korean coach Sarah Murray will be given full authority to select North Korean players to compete.

“If South and North Korea form one team and compete in the Games, that will be an everlasting historic event, which I think will move our people and people around the world,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday.

Murray said a joint team would be a distraction and present challenges, according to Yonhap News Agency.

“I think there is damage to our players,” the Canadian said Tuesday, according to Yonhap. “It’s hard because the players have earned their spots, and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics. Then you have people being added later. It definitely affects our players.

“This is another distraction, and we have to worry about things we can control. We can’t control this situation.

“Adding somebody so close to the Olympics is a little bit dangerous just for team chemistry because the girls have been together for so long. Teaching systems and different things … I’d have about a month to teach these (new) players the way our team plays. That makes me a little nervous.

“I hope that I am not being pressured to play (North Koreans). I am hoping we can just play the way we play and not have the influence of, ‘I need to play this player.’ I just want the best players to play. If you play your best, then you earn your ice time. Whether you’re South Korean or North Korean, they have to earn their place.”

North Korea boycotted the previous Olympics held in South Korea, the Summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988.

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