When the going gets tough in the Sheppard household — a two-bedroom unit in a Brooklyn homeless shelter — they tackle it head on.
“We come together and talk about different things, it’s like a family counseling session,” 11-year-old Tai tells PEOPLE. “And also sometimes we would pray in the mornings that we know that someday we’ll get out of there and have our own home.”
Tai and her younger sisters — Rainn, 10, and Brooke, 9 — have found an escape in track. After competing at this year’s AAU Junior Olympic Games, the girls are now receiving the ultimate honor for young athletes: Sport’s Illustrated Kids‘ SportsKids of the Year.
The girls, who beat out thousands of kids to win the 2016 title, are dedicated runners, spending most of their time either at practice through school or the Jeuness Track Club.
At the Junior Olympics, Tai ran the 400-, 800- and 80-meter hurdles, while Rainn participated in the 3,000; and Brooke competed in the 800, 1,500 and high jump. Rainn took first in the 3,000-meter run for her division, and all three siblings placed within the top 15 in each event.
And they’re not done. Says Rainn, “My goal is to not only to beat the world record… My goal is to stay fit every year, and being that I’m trying to stay fit I make sure that I’m healthy mentally, too because everyone tells me that track is a mental sport. Not only do you have to do pushups and stuff but you have to believe in yourself.”
They also believe in each other — but not without a little competitive streak.
“We’re very supportive,” Tai says. “Sometimes we’ll get competitive and say, ‘Oh I did this time, and you did this time’ — because me and Rainn were both on the . But we’re very supportive because we will cheer for each other while we’re running.”
The Sheppard girls also have good role models, like their own coach, Jean Bell, mom Tonia Handy, and star runner Allyson Felix, who Brooke says she followed closely during the Rio Olympics.
“I look up to ,” shares Brooke. “She’s very fast. She works very hard to reach her goals and she’s kind to her teammates and her competitors. She works very hard and she actually made it to the Olympics, so I’m very inspired by her.”
When they’re not practicing — which is, currently, three times a week — the girls have other interests, like singing and dancing.
Tai loves science and hopes to be either an archaeologist, biologist or marine biologist, while Brooke is into math — her class is currently learning how to multiply three-digit numbers by two-digit numbers. Rainn on the other hand likes literature. Her favorite book series? Harry Potter.
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While home life isn’t easy due to the threat of roaches and tight quarters, the girls and their mother focus on the good.
“Honestly, my family keeps me happy,” says Rainn.
Adds Tai of Handy, “She supports us a lot, especially when she doesn’t really think about herself. She always tries to think for us. She works really hard and she tries really hard for us to have food in the house and also for us to be comfortable.”
And mom has equally glowing things to say about her brood. “I’m proud,” she tells PEOPLE. “Very proud.”
The new issue of SI Kids hits newsstands on Monday, Nov. 28, and the new cover and SportsKid feature are available online now at SIKIDS.com/skoty.