The Sheppard sisters—Tai, 13; Rainn, 12; and Brooke, 10—made waves when they burst onto the track scene, earning recognition as totally inspirational track phenoms and winning Sports Illustrated Kids‘ SportsKid of the Year award in 2016. For them, the cheerleader that pushed them to success has been their track coach Jean Bell, who’s been showing up for New York City’s girls since 1984.
That’s the year Bell started Jeuness Track Club (which means “young ladies” track club in French) in her native Brooklyn. Through her own experience running track growing up, she knew it gave her a foundation that later propelled her to law school (she now works as an administrative law judge outside of her coaching duties), and realized it could be the difference between girls staying engaged and heading off to college—or not.
Since then, Bell estimates she’s coached thousands of girls city-wide in an in-depth process that goes way beyond shouting from the sidelines (Jeuness’ ultimate goal is helping girls achieve athletic scholarships to college, and the team monitors and assists with academics to make that happen).
“[Sports] makes them set their goals for what they want to do in life and be able to go after that in a fierce and competitive way.”
“They have to have an order to their lives, and know how to balance their schoolwork and their training,” says Bell. “Once they get out of school, it makes them set their goals for what they want to do in life and be able to go after that in a fierce and competitive way.”
And then, in 2015, she met the Sheppard sisters: three girls with absolutely zero training, but crazy talent in spades. Only after she brought the girls onto the team did she learn they had recently moved into a homeless shelter. They remained there for two years before moving into their new home in 2017 with support from Jeuness and the community—an experience she says taught them resilience.
“We try to give them as much as possible so they don’t feel different from the other girls on the team,” Bell says. “And I tell them, you’re not always going to be like this, but when you’re not you have to remember what it was like and try to do better for yourself.”
With Bell’s encouragement, three bubbly young girls with serious raw talent have been shaped into potential Olympic contenders, competing in the Junior Olympics for the fourth time this year—and they couldn’t have done it without a mentor standing behind them.
Keep reading for 3 lessons the Sheppard sisters learned from Bell—plus advice on how to play the mentor role to the girls in your life.
The girls first caught Bell’s eye in January 2015 at the Colgate Women’s Games, where their babysitter had taken them to participate in the events just for fun. Not knowing they were related, she individually gave each sister a business card and an invitation to join her track team, Jeuness Track Club.
Though she picked them out of the huge crowds of participants for their potential, she didn’t think they were stars immediately. It was only a result of their hard work and commitment to learning that they were able to qualify for the AAU Junior Olympics just over six months after stepping on a track for the first time.
Rainn remembers being really bummed at first that her commitment to track meant less soda and chips and a lot more sweaty workouts—but after a few trips around the track she was hooked. “Track used to be fun, now it’s fun and very competitive for me,” she says. “I take it very seriously now.”
After medaling in the Junior Olympics each of the last three years, the Sheppards certainly have the talent to back up their Olympic aspirations. But the differentiator is being surrounded by voices not only telling them their dreams are valid, but also pushing them to achieve them.
“I try to be kind, but my teaching style is to demand a lot, to have great expectations and high goals, and to expect you to reach them,” Bell says. “There’s no such thing as failure.”
For all three girls, those great expectations include the Olympics (without missing a beat, 10-year-old Brooke says she wants to go to the Olympics three to five times, to be exact), as well as a plan to share a six-floor mansion they will live in together when they’re older—after Tai becomes a biochemist and a coach for Jeuness.
Tai’s advice for other girls who are chasing their dreams? Never stop trying. “If you have a goal, you should try and try and try until you reach that goal, because for me, I don’t think you’ve lived a great life unless you’ve accomplished something you’ve really wanted.”
Discipline, goal-setting, and fun are all lessons Bell attributes to her own experience with running track as a young woman, but above all, the quality she tries to instill the girls on her team is responsibility.
“I’m always telling the girls they have to be responsible for themselves, for what they do and for what they say,” Bell says. “I think they also learn discipline and goal-setting, and they do learn it. A lot of girls will come back to me down the road and say, ‘That was the greatest experience,’ even girls who weren’t great runners.”
One of the ways Bell instills responsibility is through coaching the girls on how to behave as young ladies (an homage to the club’s name)—but young ladies with grit, of course. That dignified conduct shows in the wisdom the sisters have to share, despite their young ages.
“Whatever hard times you’re going through, it doesn’t change you, and it shouldn’t change the way you think about yourself,” says Brooke, the youngest sister. “I would say never give up until the situation you’re in is fixed. For example, when we had a bad situation, my mom kept fighting, and with Jean [Bell]’s help and the team’s help we got out of it. So I would say keep trying and stay strong.”
And Rainn, the eldest at just 13, sums it up like this: “After a storm there’s always a rainbow, and at the end of that rainbow is gold,” she says. Inspired yet?
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Photos: Tim Gibson for Well+Good