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.”

Adam Jones, five-time MLB All-Star, becomes Olympic eligible

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Should the U.S. qualify for baseball’s Olympic return, a five-time MLB All-Star could be eligible for its roster in Tokyo. And he has interest.

Outfielder Adam Jones signed with the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s domestic league, which, unlike MLB, will take an Olympic break next summer to allow players to take part in the first Olympic baseball tournament in 12 years.

Jones, 34, made no mention of Olympic eligibility in a social media post announcing the signing. His Instagram avatar is a photo of him in a Team USA jersey from the World Baseball Classic.

Jones’ agent later said that Jones does have interest in playing for the U.S. in Tokyo, should an American team qualify in the spring.

“To play over in Japan has always been a desire of Adam’s, and the timing worked out that the Olympics happens to be played in Tokyo the first year of his contract,” Jones’ agent wrote in an email. “It wasn’t one of the factors on his decision BUT more of a [sic] addition to the overall package to decide to go.”

Jones called being part of the U.S.’ 2017 WBC title, “probably the best experience of my life so far, especially with sports,” according to The Associated Press. He was one of five players to be on the U.S. team at each of the last two World Baseball Classics.

The U.S. still faces a difficult task to qualify for the Tokyo Games. It lost to Mexico last month in its first of up to three chances at qualifying tournaments, using a roster of mostly double-A and triple-A caliber players.

Major Leaguers are not expected to be made available for qualifying or for the Tokyo Games.

The next two qualifying tournaments will be in late March (an Americas qualifier in Arizona) and early April (a final, global qualifying event in Chinese Taipei). It remains to be seen how MLB clubs will go about releasing minor leaguers for a tournament that will take place during spring training.

Jones could become the third player with prior MLB All-Star experience to compete at the Olympics from any nation, joining Australian catcher Dave Nilsson and Canadian pitcher Jason Dickson.

Jones made five All-Star teams during an 11-year stint with the Baltimore Orioles from 2008-18 before playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season.

Many players competed at the Olympics before making an MLB All-Star team, including Stephen Strasburg and Jason Giambi.

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Russia boxers to boycott Olympics if sanctions not lifted

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Russian boxers will only take part in the Tokyo Olympics if doping sanctions forcing them to compete as neutral athletes are overturned, the general secretary of the Russian Boxing Federation told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Umar Kremlev said he has spoken with the Olympic boxing team and they “unanimously” rejected the conditions laid out by the World Anti-Doping Agency as punishment for manipulating doping data.

The WADA sanctions, announced on Monday, ban the use of the Russian team name, flag or anthem at a range of major sports competitions over the next four years, including next year’s Olympics.

“They said we won’t go without our flag and anthem,” Kremlev said. “We aren’t going for medals, but for that feeling that I brought the highest honor home for my country.”

Separately, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament said Russia could create an alternative to the Olympics.

“This ruling show the clear crisis in international sports institutions. I believe that Russia could host its own games at home,” Valentina Matvienko said in comments reported by the Interfax news agency.

There is a precedent. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union refused to compete in the Olympics and hosted its own Spartakiads — named after the ancient rebel slave Spartacus — with a strong socialist slant. However, the Soviet Union began competing at the Olympics in 1952 and Russians generally take great pride in the country’s Olympic achievements since then.

If the sanctions aren’t overturned, Kremlev said Russian boxers would prefer to turn pro rather than compete at the Olympics.

“A world champion (in professional boxing) is better known than an Olympic champion,” Kremlev said, adding the Russian anthem would be played before pro title fights.

Kremlev said boxers are being asked to shoulder the blame for offenses committed in other sports. He said they would still stay at home even if Russia’s athletes in other sports decided to take part.

“If other sports are guilty and people have breached the WADA code, why are we punished?” he said. “We are for honest sport and against doping. We want our sport to be clean … If someone breaks the rules, we push them out.”

Russia is a major power in amateur and Olympic boxing. It hosted both men’s and women’s world championships this year, finishing at the top of the medals table at the women’s event and second in the men’s championships. The International Olympic Committee has taken direct charge of boxing at the Tokyo Olympics after criticizing chronic financial problems and infighting at the International Boxing Association.

Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov talked up Russia’s chances of overturning the WADA sanctions.

“I think that there is every basis to appeal the decision, because our experts have presented their position, and they have the same database as WADA does,” Kolobkov said in comments reported by state news agency TASS. “There is an answer to every question and the whole process is ahead of us.”

The official decision on whether to dispute the sanctions will be made on Dec. 19 by the Russian anti-doping agency’s supervisory board, but senior figures, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have signaled their preference for taking the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

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