The day before Halloween, an unseasonably mild 70-degree Sunday, 24 girls sporting pink-and-blue track suits formed two lines at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, New York. Their lines may not have been perfectly straight — as their coach, Jean Bell, noted afterward — but the members of the Jeuness Track Club, ages five to 16, executed their plyometric drills flawlessly as they warmed up for a USA Track and Field cross-country meet.
On this day the girls were preparing to run three-person relays in their respective age groups, with each athlete covering one mile. Eleven-year-old Tai Sheppard would set up 10-year-old Rainn Sheppard to beat the second-place team in their division, also a Jeuness group, by a whopping one minute and 20 seconds. Nine-year-old Brooke Sheppard would run the middle leg of a relay and help her trio finish second in a different division.
Tai wants to qualify for the AAU Junior Olympic Games every year. She placed second in the 80-meter hurdles in her age group in Houston in July, her second time competing at the meet. “Since I qualified for my first year, I’m like, I can do this,” she says. “I know I can.”
“I plan to go to the Olympics one day in [a distance race],” says Rainn, who returned from Houston with a gold medal in the 3,000. “My track and field goals are just to keep getting emotionally and physically stronger. It’s all about what’s inside, in your mind. You have to say: You can do this, you can do this.”
“My goals are to get faster as a runner and jump higher,” says Brooke, who placed second in the high jump in Houston. “For college, I would want to stay nearby so I can see how the team’s doing.”
If these three siblings sound confident, it’s not an accident. Their mom, Tonia Handy, appreciates the encouragement that Bell and the Jeuness coaches have offered her daughters. “I think it’s given them a sense of security,” Handy says. “I think they worry about me out in the world less now that they know that I have the support of really good people and I’m happier.”
Life hasn’t been easy for Handy’s family. She has raised her girls on her own since before Brooke was born. Their half brother was shot and killed three years ago at the age of 17. Handy works hard to support her family, but they have lived in a two-bedroom unit in a homeless shelter since last September. (Handy played the role of exterminator when they first moved in, ridding the apartment of bugs and mice.)
To speak with Tai, Rainn and Brooke is to understand optimism and dedication. To watch them compete is to witness grace and determination. For these reasons, and for their accomplishments on the track, the Sheppard sisters are the SportsKids of the Year.
Discovering a New Passion
Tai, Rainn and Brooke didn’t grow up interested in sports. They enjoyed participating in a chess club after school and playing the piano. Tai started her own book club for half a dozen students in fourth grade after finishing the class requirements.
Last winter, their babysitter, Sharon Davis, who looks after them while Handy works, registered them to run in indoor track meets.
They had a lot of fun. Separately, while competing at the Colgate Women’s Games, they caught Bell’s attention. “I gave cards to each of them to give to their mothers,” recalls Bell, who didn’t realize they were sisters.
When they got home, they spoke to their mom about attending track practice the next day. “The first thing I thought about was, Will their education be interrupted? Because these are great kids,” Handy says. “When it comes to schoolwork, they are No. 1. They were never into sports, so I was kind of leery, but [the parents and coaches] were so welcoming. It was beautiful. I took them to a practice, and they had the time of their lives. I never thought they could run so fast!”
That summer, Tai and Rainn qualified for the 4 x 400-meter relay at the AAU Junior Olympic Games in Norfolk, Va., and they helped their relay team win gold.
The sisters continued to earn medals and trophies at local and regional races. They’ve maintained A’s and B’s in school and have broadened their extracurricular activities. Tai and Rainn were cast in their Brooklyn school’s production of Alice in Wonderland. (Rainn is Alice. Tai is a playing card. Bell’s sister, Betty, is sewing both costumes.) This fall Brooke was admitted to a weekend art program at the prestigious Pratt Institute.
Since they joined up with Coach Bell and Jeuness, they have become more disciplined, more focused, and more outgoing. “That’s one of the things that I really appreciate about them being in the sport,” Handy says. “They’re good girls. And being with this group of girls at the track, at track practice — they respect one another.”
That has become Bell’s aim since she founded the all-girls Brooklyn-based track club in 1985. “Responsibility doesn’t come in a card on your 18th birthday,” Bell says. “It’s about problem-solving for your journey. It’s about building the whole person.”
Her goal is to keep her runners invested in school and in track and out of trouble so they can earn college scholarships. Girls do science projects at her house, and she coordinates outings to movies and celebrations around the holidays. Bell and the other coaches collect report cards and give tutoring. The day before Halloween, coaches and parents assembled bags of treats for the runners as Bell supervised while wearing a headband with jack-o’-lantern antennae. “We want to keep them interested and having fun,” she says.
Once the sisters qualified for the AAU meet in Houston — in a total of eight events — they needed to find a way to pay for the trip. So did another member of the team, who also lives in a homeless shelter. Coaches and the parent of a Jeuness alum paid for the flights. The Sheppard sisters paid for expenses and a hotel room through a GoFundMe campaign. A local businessman heard about the sisters — and the fact that their mom couldn’t afford the trip — and reached out to Betty’s daughter, Karel Williams, who is the team manager. He wanted to cover Handy’s trip to Houston.
With the coaches’ blessings, Handy surprised Rainn before her 3,000-meter final.
“I just ran over and jumped on her and hugged her,” Rainn says. “When she came, I was so excited. Boy, I wish I could do that again.”
At Home on the Track
The Sheppard sisters may have been racing for only two years, but they have already settled into a rhythm in their favorite events.
Brooke is partial to the high jump. “I’m not that tall, but I can jump really high,” she says.
Rainn loves the 3,000; she was the nation’s top AAU qualifier for her age group. “It’s long and so relaxing,” she explains. “I can run it fast and I’ll still be relaxed. . . . My strategy — not my secret strategy, I’m not going to tell you that — is to go fast when other people don’t go fast. They go out in the first couple laps, and then I’m right there. Then they slow down, and I run faster.”
Tai prefers hurdles. “It’s really fun, but it’s also hard because of the technique you have to do,” she says. “It’s a very quick race, but I’m also very good at it, so it makes it, not easy to win, but pretty easy for me to not get scared about what I’m going to do.”
No matter where track and field takes these girls, they will have the support of their mom and their track family.
“I want to, of course, give them a more stable life,” Handy says. “But as far as a stimulating, open life, they’re getting that now.”
“They are the most optimistic people I’ve ever seen. Nothing gets them down,” Bell says. “They’re going to go far no matter what.”
GALLERY: SPORTSKIDS OF THE YEAR FINALISTS
Photo credits: Al Tielemans (with coaches), Richard Drew/AP (Tai hurdling), Courtesy of AAU (Rainn running)