This week, young track and field stars Tai, Rainn and Brooke Sheppard were announced as the recipients of the 2016 Sports Illustrated SportsKids Of the Year award for their athletic accomplishments and unwavering dedication in the face of extreme hardships.
ESSENCE caught up with the young track stars and their proud mother Tonia Handy for a quick chat just as they were preparing for the SI SportsKids of the Year announcement.
The girls first took an interest in track and field when their babysitter signed them up for a track meet in January of 2015. When the family fell on hard times and relocated to a homeless shelter that September, the encouraging spirit of those around them played a big role in helping to keep them going.
"My coach really inspired me to try hard and to really put everything into it," 9-year-old Brooke told ESSENCE. "Also, my babysitter Sharon Davis, who introduced us to track and field and really helped us work as hard as we could to get us where we are now." Brooke also credits Olympic champion Alex Felix with inspiring her to push forward. "My inspiration is Alex Felix," she adds. "She really inspires me to work really hard like her."
Focused on taking things to even higher heights as a Junior Olympian, 10-year-old Rainn had the perfect reaction to learning of the SportsKids of the Year honor.
"This is the type of place that hard work can take you!" she says. "My main goal is just to keep trying harder so I can do my best in the Junior Olympics because, if you think about it, all of my training is for that."
For big sister Tai, there's nothing quite like getting to live her dreams with her sisters by her side.
"The most exciting part is going to Junior Olympic nationals and congratulating my sisters and supporting them," she says. "Also, winning awards myself and then getting to relax after working so hard."
Mom Tonia Handy says she's done all she can to teach the girls invaluable life lessons that they've most certainly used to propel them forward. "Just never give up and have fun in what you do," she says."Be who you wanna be. I've always taught them to never settle and to do the best you can at anything and I they really took that to heart."
And while the girls' athletic accomplishments are no small feat, their mother is most proud of knowing that she's raising three young women of extraordinary character.
"They're so loving! Every mom that meets the girls, they always say, 'You have such beautiful young ladies, they're so well spoken, they treat my daughters so well,'" she beamed. "They're very kind and giving, whether it's tutoring or just making somebody feel comfortable about themselves. It really just puts a smile on my face to hear positive things like that about them from so many different people as their mother."
Be sure to head over the SIKids.com for the full cover story on these three young queens and check out the video below for more on the Sheppard sisters -- aka the 2016 SI SportsKids of the Year!