During moments of self-reflection, it doesn’t take long for Haven Shepherd to recognize that her life is a miracle.
It’s something Shepherd, a swimmer for the USA, was recently reminded of while competing at the Tokyo Paralympics, where she placed fifth in the 200m individual medley.
“I was just putting my suit on, and I was looking around and I was like: ‘Wow, I have no scars on the rest of my body, it’s all just on my legs,’” she tells CNN’s Selina Wang.
Shepherd, who turned 18 earlier this year, has been a double amputee since she was 14 months old when she survived a bomb explosion that killed her biological parents.
“I was born in Vietnam to two parents that had an affair and had me,” she explains. “In Vietnam, women can’t divorce husbands, and so for their circumstance, they thought the thing that would be best for their family was to commit a family suicide.
“They strapped bombs onto themselves, and they held me, and I was blown 40 feet away from the accident, and all the damage was done to my legs.”
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At 20 months old, Shepherd was adopted by an American family in Carthage, Missouri – her parents, Rob and Shelly, and her six siblings.
She had learned to swim in her family’s backyard pool by the time she was three years old, and at 10 started racing competitively.
Having experienced her first Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Shepherd acknowledges how the events of her early life have shaped who she is today.
“My mom was always really honest about what happened to me and it’s definitely made me the person that I am now,” she says.
“I think of my biological mom’s sacrifice. I was always this baby, I was always a very happy, bubbly baby … and I look at her sacrifice of her life for me.
“I got to live this amazing life, I am here at the Paralympics, I got to have an amazing childhood.”
The ‘peace from within’
Through swimming, Shepherd has discovered what she calls a “peace from within” – a sense of calm and comfort while in the water that she’s felt ever since she was a young child.
“The very first time I ever smiled when I first got adopted was when my parents put me in the swimming pool,” she says.
“I love how it comes full circle; swimming still makes me smile to this day … there’s no sound, you don’t hear anything, and it’s just so special to know that a sport has your back.
“You look forward to that at the end of the day. (I do) nine practices in a week and I’m dead tired, but I still look forward to it.”
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While swimming consumes most of her energy, Shepherd is also an influential figure away from the pool: a model, a motivational speaker, and an ambassador for other amputees.
Over the course of her life, she’s come to see her disability as “one of the greatest gifts that I’ve ever had.”
“Definitely going through an amputation – or just growing up without limbs in general – makes you grow up really fast because you need to choose what the world is going to be to you,” says Shepherd.
“Is it going to be somewhere where it’s not safe and you never leave your house and you don’t want people to look at you? Or do you want the world to know that: ‘Hey, we exist?’
“When people see me out in the wild, you would think I’m some new fish they found on National Geographic. Everybody’s looking at me, but I think that’s so special, too – to be a learning tool for people, educating them (about) the Paralympics and the disabled community.”
Although Shepherd notes that attitudes are changing towards disability sport, she also says that Paralympians deserve more recognition for their athletic achievements, singling out teammate Jessica Long, who has 26 Paralympic medals to her name but doesn’t attract the same media attention as fellow American swim stars Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel.
In terms of her own performance in Tokyo, Shepherd – who identifies Long as one of her idols – was delighted with her time of 3:03:59 in the 200m individual medley final, which was watched by her family back home.
“I was so thrilled with that and I’ve accomplished all of my goals,” she says. “I feel like I could just pass out right now.”
Having ticked off her Paralympic goals, Shepherd can now turn her sights to other life events – and the next Paralympics.
“I’m definitely thinking about colleges and definitely want to go into some type of therapy. I love family therapy,” she says.
“We’ll see where my life goes, but definitely you’ll see me in Paris.”