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.”