Before they appeared on the cover of “Sports Illustrated,” before the TV appearances and red-carpet galas and the surprise home makeover from Tyler Perry, the Sheppard sisters were living in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn with their single mother.
How they overcame adversity and raced their way into the limelight is the subject of “Sisters On Track,” an in-depth portrait of track-and-field stars Tai, Rainn and Brooke Sheppard as they battle through hardship while pursuing Olympic glory. Produced by Anita R. Larsen for Sant & Usant, and directed by Corinne van der Borch and Tone Grøttjord-Glenne, the project will be taking part in the IDFA Forum this week.
Van der Borch first encountered the Sheppards through a mutual friend, who’d met the sisters at a neighborhood block party. It didn’t take long for the Dutch filmmaker, who’s been living in Brooklyn for 12 years, to get drawn in by their story. “Before we knew it,” she said, “I was on the track meeting Coach Jean [Bell]”—the no-nonsense founder of the celebrated Jeuness Track Club, which trains female athletes for success both on and off the track.
Not long after they’d been recruited by Bell, the sisters were evicted from their longtime home and forced to live in a shelter. But soon they were competing on the national stage, taking part in the Junior Olympics while being named Sports Illustrated Kids’ SportsKids of the Year. “They were living in the homeless shelter, but at the same time they were appearing on the red carpet with celebrities…and [having] one foot in each world,” said Grøttjord-Glenne.
Van der Borch said she felt an instant rapport with the sisters and their mother, Tonia Handy, entering their lives at a time when they were just being swept into the national limelight. Amid the media storm, van der Borch tried to prove that she wasn’t just parachuting in for a quick scoop. “They knew that I was very serious, and that they could trust me with their story,” she said.
The filmmakers got unprecedented access into the sisters’ lives, documenting their success on the track, even as they wrestled with challenges at home while confronting the emotional upheaval of puberty. “They’re reaching their vulnerable years,” said van der Borch. “Now they’re reaching adolescence, which is a time when not only your body changes, but also maybe more of your internal life.”
More than two years after they began filming, van der Borch and Grøttjord-Glenne are planning to follow the sisters through the fall of 2019, when Tai and Rainn will make the transition to high school, and the family will have to find a way to survive when the support of Perry – who pledged to cover their rent for two years – runs out. “One of the questions that we find really interesting is the idea of getting a break, actually getting a chance, and what does that mean when someone has your best interests at heart,” said van der Borch.
Despite their success and their moment in the spotlight, the Sheppards are still running a race that is less a sprint than a marathon, and doing so in a country of stark racial and economic divides—a reality that serves as a backdrop to what Grøttjord-Glenne describes as a “hopeful, positive story.” In light of those institutional challenges, the director wonders whether the support of the past two years can sustain the sisters once the spotlight dims. “Is that really enough to turn your life around?” she asked.