US swimmer Haven Shepherd lost her legs as a baby after her parents detonated a bomb intended to kill the whole family.
This week, at her maiden Paralympics in Tokyo, the upbeat teenager said her goals were all about “just going out and having fun”.
Shepherd was 14 months old and living in rural Vietnam when her birth parents — who she has been told were having an affair and could not marry — decided to take their own lives, as well as the child’s.
They strapped themselves to a bomb, held Haven and detonated the device, killing themselves instantly and blasting their tiny daughter 12 metres (40 feet) out of their hut.
She survived, though doctors were forced to amputate her legs. Six months later she was adopted by an American family who took her to Missouri to begin a new life.
Now 18, she described her debut at the Tokyo Games last Saturday as “a surreal moment”.
“It’s something you talk about with your family for five years, and it finally happened,” she said of her first race, where she finished fifth in the SM8 200m individual medley.
“I’m just going out and having fun. I know that I’m here and I made it. I accomplished my goal of making it to the Paralympics.”
Shepherd also swam in Wednesday morning’s SB7 100m breaststroke heats, missing out on a place in the final.
She is excited though about having the Paralympics in the international spotlight and says she is “open” about telling her story to the world.
That ease with her distressing backstory comes from her adoptive mother, she says, who had no hesitation about answering when a five-year-old Haven suddenly asked her where she came from one bath time.
“Some people don’t even know their story — I think why I am the person I am today is because I got to learn about who I was before I got to live this life,” she said.
Shepherd says she accepted the explanation easily, and “understood on a deeper level” what had happened to her.
– ‘A sense of peace’ –
And she has never felt any resentment towards her birth parents, saying she only has sympathy for her late mother.
“I always looked at my mother’s sacrifice — what did she lose when she lost her life? She had to lose her baby,” she said.
“I got to live the amazing life in America and have the birthday parties and the Christmas home videos. I got to live that amazing childhood.”
Growing up in Missouri with six siblings, Shepherd says she never felt left out because of her disability.
She describes putting her prosthetic legs on as no different to wearing glasses, and says her disability has never held her back.
She began swimming at the age of 10, and quickly fell in love with the sport.
“Swimming just means everything to me,” she said.
“It could be the tenth practice of the week and I’m just dog-tired and I don’t want to go, but I still look forward to it because it gives me time to be away from my phone and my legs and worrying about things I need to do later.”
“It gives you such a sense of peace,” she added.
After years of training for Tokyo, Shepherd is looking forward to taking a break after the Games and just being “a normal 18-year-old”.
She “definitely” intends to compete again in Paris in three years’ time, but refuses to put pressure on herself in terms of results.
“My expectations are the same as who I am — I’m just going out and having fun,” she said.
“I’ve never taken myself too serious, and why would I do that now?”
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