Will the Sheppard Sisters Continue to Rise?
A Quick Film Review
The close of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics gave me time to catch-up with the documentary Sisters on Track, originally released in 2021 at the TriBeCa Film Festival and produced by Sant & Usant from Norway. Ultimately, the film provides a stark reminder of the village it takes to produce a track athlete, let alone an Olympian, and the myriad challenges a prospective athlete navigates.
Directors Corinne van der Borch and Tonne Grottjord-Glenne pick it up from there, after an apartment donation from entertainer Tyler Perry provides some stability for the family as the sisters navigate the last years of middle school into junior high.
What's charming is their youth and exuberance - the girls harbor ambitions of big careers mixed with running, mentioning the Olympics as a goal. At the same time, they're young girls, entering teenage years and the subsequent hormonal, growth, emotional challenges that brings. Not to mention boys, school dances, friendships...youth. At the same time, they're faced with next-school considerations - Tai and Rainn struggle to find an available high school.
A constant presence, and the breakout star of the film, is coach Jean Bell of the the girls' Jeuness Track Club in Brooklyn, NY. Bell is a trackside taskmaster, surrogate mother, and disciplinarian with a firm grip on the bigger picture of the need to mix academics and athletics for scholarship opportunities. And, she has a heart big enough to want that bigger picture for her team's girls.
The film closes with mixed individual fortunes at the 2017 Junior Olympics, as both Rainn and Brooke finish third in their middle distance races, but Tai failing to qualify for the 800 final. Next up is the start of a new school year - freshmen Tai and Rainn, and seventh grader Brooke, with a new cycle of challenges awaiting.
It's a striking look at one family's coming-of-age, and at how remarkable it is for a track star to emerge. Talent gets you so far...hard work, focus, ability limit teenage distractions, and just plain interest all play their parts. As does the support system, as one can see how much more difficult these girls' journey would have been had Bell not been a mentor, or had their housing still be a mental strain. That anyone becomes an elite athlete is an impressive feat for surviving.
So, what's next for the Sheppards? Word is, middle sister Rainn has emerged as the most track-focused still, though running gear company Brooks has stepped up with a scholarship fund for all three. We have a few years to see their track careers still develop, through college and beyond if possible. I'll be watching.