Haven Shepherd, a suicide bombing survivor, is ready to take on the world.
On Friday, the 18-year-old swimmer will be representing Team USA during the Tokyo Paralympic Games for the first time. According to the Associated Press, a debut on the global stage has been a long-time dream for Haven, who has been swimming professionally since the age of 10.
While she has been preparing to participate in the Paralympics for years, her journey as a world-class Paralympic athlete began when she was an infant in Vietnam.
Nothing short of a miracle
Born Do Thi Thuy Phuong, Haven was just 14 months old when her father, out of desperation, strapped bombs to himself and her mother and detonated while holding her between them. The explosion took the lives of both of her parents. Haven, who was propelled out of their hut’s door, survived the bomb but lost her legs.
An American couple named Rob and Shelly Shepherd adopted her six months later, providing her with a life she has taken on with much hope and perseverance.
“I don’t think I could’ve lived anywhere else or been raised any differently than how I was,” she was quoted as saying. “I’m a small-town girl from Missouri. When it comes to getting adopted, I got the long end of the stick.”
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Finding their haven
According to Shelly, her husband had just suffered two heartbreaking losses of loved ones a few years before finding the orphan they would later call their own. Rob lost his brother, Terry, in an accident two years before Haven was born, and his father died of a heart attack four years before that.
Around this time, Shelly had been following stories about struggling orphans in countries such as Vietnam. She eventually convinced Rob to adopt a child.
“He was suffering in silence,” Shelly said. “It’s what made it so cool about seeing him on the trip to Vietnam. I could see him beginning to come back alive.”
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When Shelly and Rob first met Haven, she was originally supposed to be adopted by another couple — the Shepherds were just accompanying two people who were working to find her a home.
However, Shelly and Rob instantly bonded with the baby, and when arrangements with the first family did not go through, they took the opportunity to bring her home. They named her Haven, a name that Shelly had liked for some time.
Before the Shepherds adopted her, she was being taken care of by her biological maternal grandparents, who would wrap her legs. Later on, surgeons at a hospital in Kansas City claimed the manner of Haven’s amputation to be “perfect” since it did not pose further problems and complications that would require revisions through the years.
Back in 2018, Shelly wanted to take Haven back to Vietnam to meet the grandparents who lovingly took care of her. She felt a responsibility toward Haven’s biological grandmother, telling the young girl, “You don’t remember the pain in your grandmother’s face. I hold that as a responsibility.”
Getting into sports
Influenced by her six athletic older siblings, Haven started running at a young age after receiving prosthetic legs from a non-profit. When she realized at age 9 that running was not for her, her parents suggested making use of their pool.
Haven started taking swimming lessons, saying being in the water made her feel free. She soon found herself joining a team and developing her dreams of one day reaching the Paralympic Games.
According to her Team USA profile, Haven’s swimming career is highlighted by multiple international victories, including placing first at the 2017 Can-Am Open in the 100-meter butterfly, 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle, 200-meter individual medley and 100-meter breaststroke categories.
She also won first place in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle, second in the 200-meter individual medley and 100-meter butterfly and fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke at the 2018 World Para Swimming World Series in Indianapolis.
At the 2019 World Para Swimming World Series in Indianapolis, she won second place in the 100-meter breaststroke, third in the 200-meter individual medley, fourth in the 50-meter freestyle and fifth in the 100-meter backstroke.
For her Paralympics bid this week, she told KSN in July that she aims not just to finish strong, but also to do fun things on the side.
“Going to practice is hard,” she said. “But, going to the Paralympics is a lot of fun. I’m going with all my friends. I told the main coach of the Paralympic swim team that she was so brave for taking six high schoolers to the competition of their life.”
Even at a young age, Haven already understood how her story has impacted and has continued to serve as an inspiration to many.
Despite her busy schedule and training for her dream, Haven still finds time to be a motivational speaker and dedicated advocate for people with disabilities. She is also a CrossFit athlete, a model for Models of Diversity and a spokeswoman for the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
Haven will make her Paralympics debut on the evening of Aug. 27 (morning of Aug. 28 in Japan) to compete in the Women’s 200-meter individual medley in the SM8 category. In an Instagram post, she also listed that she will compete in the Women’s 100-meter breaststroke in the SB7 category on Aug. 31 (Sept. 1 in Japan).