Haven Shepherd, 14, has an adoption story quite unlike anyone else. It includes losing her biological parents and her own legs in a bombing. But, the teen from Missouri will also tell you that those circumstances have led her down a unique path, which includes setting her sights on swimming in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
Haven was born in Vietnam to parents who fell in love but were not married to each other. They were married to different people, and in Vietnam, divorce is not permitted. They had Haven and because their love was forbidden, they decided to commit a family suicide. Her biological parents strapped bombs to themselves and held their 14-month-old daughter in their arms. The explosion instantly killed her parents, but Haven survived. However, she lost both of her legs above the knee.
Due to financial hardship, her grandmother elected to put her up for adoption, and at 19 months old, Rob and Shelly Shepherd were drawn to her story so they flew to Vietnam to bring their new daughter back to the United States.
“When I saw my wife grab Haven as a mother, it was just like a birth,” Rob told CBS Sports Network’s We Need To Talk. “It was a fatherly moment. That’s how I would describe it.”
Their was an instant bond, and almost as quickly as their love grew, Rob and Shelly realized how much she loved the water. In fact, the first time she smiled in front of them was when they put her in a swimming pool.
Haven’s love for swimming grew, especially because it gave her the independence she craved.
“The biggest part that I loved so much is that I could take my [prosthetic] legs off, and I could be in the water and feel free,” Haven said. “I liked that I could do it myself. I didn’t need help.”
By 12 years old, she was swimming competitively for her county team in Missouri, and she was the only disabled athlete on the squad.
“Haven has no problem getting up and swimming in all of our regular USA meets,” her coach said. “She’s in there, in the mix with those kids who are wanting to go swim in college.”
And it’s her drive to move forward both in the water and on land that has given her a solid foundation to work from.
“One thing that is a rule for everybody [in the Shepherd family] is that no one is a victim, and no one gets to feel sorry for themselves,” Haven told Malala.org. “That attitude from everyone around me is what gave me the courage to try and be an athlete in the beginning.”
With the Paralympics arriving in just two years, Haven still has a lot of work to do in order to make the U.S. team. So, she’s in the water nearly everyday. But, her perspective on the sport and on life is already gold-medal worthy.
“It’s about how well you swim, but that’s not the most important thing,” she told We Need To Talk. “It’s always about the people you meet, how they impact your life and how you impact their life.”
Here’s the full feature: