Haven Shepherd's father detonated a suicide bomb to kill the entire family when she was a baby.
This is her extraordinary survival story and her hopes for the future.
Haven Shepherd gets down on her knees on the school diving board, takes a deep breath, and jumps into the pool.
"I feel completely free when I'm in the water."
Haven can take a break from her prosthetic legs in the pool. Wearing them all day can be “exhausting,” according to the 15-year-old.
It’s a long journey from her training pool in Carthage, Missouri, to the hut in rural Vietnam where her father attempted to kill her.
Haven Shepherd was born in Do Thi Thuy Phuong in Quang Nam province on March 10, 2003.
Her father made a fatal decision when she was only 14 months old. He broke into their hut and tied himself and Haven’s mother to a TNT explosive device. They were separated by Haven.
I lived through something so dramatic that I wasn't supposed to.
The blast killed Haven’s parents instantly and propelled her more than 30 feet (9 meters) away from the hut, according to contemporary accounts.
Haven says, “I survived something so dramatic – I wasn’t supposed to live.”
The father of Haven had other children with another woman, as reported by the local press.. When Haven’s mother discovered this, she allegedly threatened to leave him, prompting him to decide to end all of their lives.
Haven has been told a different story, which her grandparents have passed down to her. According to their account, Haven’s parents decided to detonate the bomb together because they were desperate to marry.
Haven was burned, with shrapnel in her head and her feet mangled. But she's still alive.
Haven laughs as she recalls being called “the miracle child”. But she has few recollections of her time in Vietnam.
Her grandmother rushed her to the hospital, and despite the long motorcycle ride through mountains and jungle, she did not go into shock.
To avoid infection, both legs were amputated beneath the knee as soon as she arrived at the hospital. She had been in treatment for over a month.
Her grandparents’ anguish was exacerbated by their poverty.
Since they lacked the resources to cover the cost of her care, they had to accept donations from the families of other patients.
A local newspaper report from the time concluded, “We hope you readers can help with this heartbreaking case.”
Shelly and Rob Shepherd were facing a dilemma as Haven lay in the hospital, more than 8000 miles (13,000 km) away.
The couple lived in a small town in Missouri, raising six children and running a family flooring business.
On the other hand, Shelly couldn’t shake the feeling that their family was incomplete.
“We’d heard a speaker speak about international adoption and the staggering number of children in the world who needed a home.” That could never happen to us, I told myself. Why would we do that? We had a total of six biological children.
“Then it occurred to me, ‘Why not us?'” I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were supposed to do this from then on.”
But it was not so simple for her husband.
Rob was still grieving the loss of his brother Terry in a fatal car accident in 2000.
They were returning home from a company picnic with a dunking machine that had provided entertainment for the afternoon strapped to their vehicle.
They misjudged the game’s height, and the top of it collided with a tunnel. When the truck’s roof caved in, Terry was killed instantly. He died in an instant.
Rob and Shelly were a devout Christian couple who had always welcomed other children into their home, hosting and even fostering children for extended periods. But Rob wasn’t in the right frame of mind to proceed with the adoption.
Shelly eventually persuaded him, and soon after their decision, the couple was invited on a trip to Vietnam with Shelly’s high school friend Pam Copes and her husband Randy.
Pam and Randy had also been through a horrible tragedy. Jantsen, their teenage son, died unexpectedly from an undetected heart ailment after football practice in 1999.
Pam and Randy credit a trip to Vietnam, where other friends had established an orphanage, helping them heal.
Using money from Jantsen’s memorial, they started a charity to aid Vietnamese orphans. This charity is called the Touch a Life Foundation.
They read about Vietnamese orphans online and decided to invite Shelly and Rob along on their next trip to Vietnam to help them adopt one. Haven was that baby.
We had no idea we’d fall in love with her at the time.
Haven’s grandparents explained that they were too poor to care for her and asked Pam and Randy to take her to a disabled children’s shelter they had established in Vietnam.
On the other hand, Pam and Randy felt this was not the best place for her. In the country, there were few prosthetics available.
They arranged for another American family to adopt Haven.
Shelly accepted her friends’ invitation to travel to Vietnam and assist with the adoption. She hoped her time there would help her and her husband better understand the needs of the world’s children.
But something unexpected happened while they were there.
“We had no idea we’d fall in love with her,” Shelly says.
The Copes and Shepherds had traveled to Da Nang on Vietnam’s coast in October 2004. They were then driven to a small village high in the mountains and dense jungle by van and motorbikes. Haven resided there with her grandparents.
Shelly recalls the first time she saw the baby with complete clarity.
The narrator says that “her sister brought her up,” and that “I just put my hands out to her,” and that “she just put her hands out to me,” and that “it was like we both knew at that moment.”
Back in Da Nang, Haven seemed to want Rob to carry her all the time as they walked on the beach the next morning. The couple realized she was starting to feel like their own child.
Haven arrived in the United States with her new adopted parents just a few weeks after the paperwork and visas were completed.
Shelly had anticipated being inspired by her trip to Vietnam. She returned broken-hearted.
“That moment when Shelly handed over the baby almost killed her,” Rob recalls. “And yet, that’s what we’d planned on doing anyway.”
Six days later, Shelly received a phone call from Pam. She informed her that the other family had decided they were not a good match for her.
Haven was reunited with the Shepherds in a matter of hours.
Haven, now 15, refers to November 19, 2004, as her “gotcha day.”
“Today is the day you are returned to your family.”
“We were a whole again after she returned.” Shelly says, her voice breaking.
Her other children, she claims, completely supported her decision to adopt Haven.
“I think it’s because we’ve always been a big family that I’ve always focused on teaching the kids that love is always multiplied, never divided.” So having another child just means we have much more love to share.”
The Shepherds are having breakfast as a family in the open fields and vast sky of their Midwestern town. The noise and chaos of 13 children fill the living room. Toddlers run around the room while older siblings laugh and joke about an upcoming wedding.
Haven is lying in the middle of the carpet, surrounded by her nieces and nephews. One grabs her arms, while another lifts her by her prosthetic legs and swings her back and forth. Haven bursts out laughing.
She is happy to have such a large family to call her own. When she was adopted, her siblings ranged in age from seven to twenty-one.
“I had four older sisters, always wearing their make-up and dressing up to look like them.” That, I believe, shaped me because they were such wonderful role models in my life.
“And growing up with many high schoolers was a lot of fun.” Many times after a big dance, my parents would feed me breakfast for dinner.”
When Haven first asked about Shelly’s leg, she was only five years old.
Her mother removed her from the bath and wrapped her in a towel. Shelly related the story to her.
“Well, that was stupid,” Shelly says, to which Haven responds. “How does one even acquire a bomb in Vietnam?” he continued.
Shelly couldn’t respond, and her daughter, confident and unfazed, had already begun to play.
According to the BBC Vietnamese service, using explosives to settle debts, family disputes, and even take lives is not uncommon in Vietnam and is frequently reported in the local media. Some areas of the country are still littered with remnants of the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.
I grew up in the middle of a constantly bustling family.
Haven's story has had a significant impact on her siblings.
One of her sisters, Haley, 31, has gone on to adopt their child – from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
They have, in turn, influenced Haven’s life choices.
“I went from track and field to volleyball to basketball.” “I grew up in the middle of a constantly bustling family.” she says. “I’ve always known I wanted to be an athlete.”
On the other hand, Shelly admits that she had a stereotypical view of her disabled child at first.
“I said to myself, ‘OK, I’m going to have to give her alternatives to sports.'” I assumed she’d want to play the piano or sew – so many stupid things I imagined.”
At first, Haven tried running like her sisters, but the sweat on her legs caused her prosthetics to slip.
Shelly finally suggested they go swimming.
Haven’s racing times improved after her 13th birthday, and the US Paralympic team began to monitor her as a potential national candidate.
Haven said being “an OK swimmer” was no longer sufficient. She needed to supplement her training with weights and more pool time. Weekend trips to Colorado’s Olympic Training Center allow swimmers to train in the Rocky Mountains.
Last summer, Haven and a group of other hopeful US Paralympians traveled to Italy for a competition. They ended up winning two gold medals.
“They succeeded in taking home two golds.” I snapped a photo of it and told my friends and family, “It’s real, it’s real.”
“It means a lot to swim for your country.”
Tokyo will host the next Olympic and Paralympic Games in just over a year.
For Haven, being chosen to represent Team USA would be “the pinnacle of my life.”
Shawn Klosterman, her coach, believes she has a good chance.
“She isn’t afraid to put in the effort,” he says.
They have only a few months until the final trials before the Games begin, so they are well aware that the next few years will be “kind of a grind.”
Shawn is also aware that Haven is still a teenager.
“She’s a great example of how you can be a dedicated top-level athlete working hard while also being a goofy kid, and how fun and training can go hand in hand,” he says.
Haven enjoys spending time with her swim team friends, whom she refers to as her “four-leggers” because they have all their limbs.
She hopes she is teaching them that “there are more Havens out there.”
Haven claims she grew up in an environment with few disabled people but was always comfortable with her disability.
“I had two options,” she explains. “I could have let it make me a self-conscious mess, but instead I tell myself, “Oh, you’re staring at me because I have cool legs,” and that’s true.”
Haven works as an ambassador for other amputees when she is not training or being home-schooled. She visits amputees in the military, speaks at schools, and emphasizes the advantages of being unique.
Haven freely admits that the weight of being a role model and the constant scrutiny she faces became too much for her last year.
“I had to find a way to balance being 14 and being the story everyone wants to hear.”
According to Rob, haven’s return to Vietnam is an important part of her journey.
Her maternal grandparents are still in the country, and her half-sister has contacted her online.
Rob Shepherd says the Shepherds intend to return after the 2020 Games “to get a sense of where Haven comes from and what her parents were like.”
But for the time being, Haven’s attention is focused on her 16th birthday. However, it will be bittersweet.
Haven and Shelly have been practically inseparable since Haven was adopted.
They travel for an hour to swimming practice every day, but Haven will soon be able to drive herself.
“I think I’ll call her on the way home just to hear her voice because I adore my mother.”
Haven expresses no resentment toward her biological parents as she reflects on her dramatic start in life.
She claims to be inspired by her extraordinary survival story.
“I see that circumstance as a real reason why you shouldn’t spend your entire life moping around.”