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Homeless teen track star wins scholarship

CBS News logo CBS News 5/14/2019 Caitlin O'Kane
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A high school athlete from Arkansas is proving that strength comes in more than one form. Not only has Anya Sifuentes pushed herself as a track star, she also pushed herself to overcome a major life obstacle: homelessness.

"It was late September that things just started getting strange," Sifuentes told CBS affiliate KFSM-TV. "On October 1, I went home right after I went after school and realized that I couldn't get in my home anymore." The station didn't explain why the teen's family lost their house, but her track coach remembers the day it happened.

a person posing for the camera: Anya Sifuentes took up several jobs, found an apartment, started paying bills – and continued to go to school and run track. © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. Anya Sifuentes took up several jobs, found an apartment, started paying bills – and continued to go to school and run track.

"She called me and she was just distraught," head track coach Jeff Smith said. "I said, 'What's the matter?' She goes, 'I'm homeless. I don't have any clothes. I don't have a place to go.'"

Not only was Sifuentes prevented from going inside her house again, but her mother made the situation more difficult.

"My mom started really acting weird and you could tell that she was late on all of her bills and she wasn't acting the same anymore," Sifuentes said. "My mom said that 'I'm not gonna stay with y'all.' I thought, 'Why?'"

The teen was left to take care of her two siblings and nephew all alone. "To think that we'd be separated — I did not like the feeling," she said. "I knew it wasn't going to be the same anymore."

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In almost an instant she went from a normal high school girl to the provider for her family. She picked up jobs, found a new apartment and started paying bills — all while still attending school and track practice.

"It just slaps you in the face — knowing that you're an adult now," Sifuentes said. "You can't play around now. You can't just slack off one day because it will hit you later."

She struggled to understand why her life had turned out this way. She didn't know if she would find the strength, but she managed to persevere.

"I set a goal in my mind. I have a goal to be happy, even though all this is going on and my family doesn't seem like a family anymore," Sifuentes said. "I'm depressed and I'm stressed and money is overwhelming right now. I thought to myself, 'God is the only thing that's going to get me through all this pain.'"

The teen says God and running track helped her get through the difficult times. "Like they say, 'running away from your problems' — that's what I did," she said. " I literally ran away from my problems. Even if it meant like 10 miles." 

Sifuentes found a release in running and started doing it more and more. And not only was she was running, she was running fast — so fast that she caught the eye of college recruiters.

The high school senior was offered a scholarship to run at the University of the Ozarks, which she signed last month.

She reflected on how much her life has changed. "I just look back and think, 'This is who you are. You're someone strong,'" Sifuentes said. "You don't give up easily. Even though times get rough, you have to keep going. Even though you fall down, you have to keep going."

Her coach was extremely impressed with how she handled her difficult senior year. "To me, I don't know that I've ever met another kid who can do what she's done and endure what she's endured and do it with a smile," Coach Smith said.

"That's her heart. Somebody tells her that she can't do something, she's going to prove to you that she can," he added.

a group of people sitting at a table: Anya grinned from ear-to-ear when she signed on to run track for the University of the Ozarks. © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. Anya grinned from ear-to-ear when she signed on to run track for the University of the Ozarks.
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