Paralympian Haven Shepherd Survived a Bomb Explosion to Become One of the World's Fastest Swimmers

We invite you to dive right into the tale of Paralympian Haven Shepherd. A tragic childhood incident claimed both of her legs—but not her fighting spirit. The swimmer shared her journey with E! News.

By Sarah Grossbart Mar 16, 2022 11:00 AMTags
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Tales of overcoming adversity are as common at the Olympics as ice baths and interlocking ring tattoos. Which is perhaps why Paralympian Haven Shepherd doesn't spend too much time thinking about the fact that her very existence is a miracle. 

"My story started in Vietnam when I was 16 months old," the 19-year-old swimmer shared with E! News in an exclusive interview. She was the product of her biological parents' extramarital affair and, with women in the country unable to divorce their husbands, "They thought the best way they could be together was to commit a family suicide."

Her parents strapped bombs to themselves, and held their toddler tight. The blast killed them both, but Haven was flung 40 feet away, she explained "and all the damage was done to my legs."

Four months—and one emergency surgery to amputate both legs below the knee—later she was adopted by Carthage, Mo.-based Rob and Shelly Shepherd. The parents of seven made sure to tell their youngest about her remarkable origin. 

Tokyo 2020 Paralympians to Know From Team USA

"I mean, I was on my mom's hip and she was telling the story of this baby that she just adopted and she loved," Haven recalled. "It was never just a big dark secret that they kept and that was very magical to think about. Growing up I always just thought, 'Oh, my other siblings, they were liked, but I was chosen.'"

Courtesy of Haven Shepherd

A 15-minute chat was enough time to realize the athlete is always the type to ferret out the silver lining in a situation. 

To her, living as a double amputee is her super power, "such a fantastic thing," she insisted to E! News. "Having a disability, people always put a downside and always want to change the name. 'Don't call me handicapped.' But that's who I am. And why not change the narrative of what handicapped means? There's no point of making people learn new words. It's changing what the words mean."

For the 2020 Paralympian, who finished fifth in Tokyo's 200-meter Individual Medley, that starts with celebrating the accomplishments of her contemporaries with the same fervor given to Olympic athletes. 

"I think it's really important to know that adaptive athletes are still professional athletes," she explained. "We work just as hard, maybe a little bit harder because we have a little bit more obstacles. But I personally think it's just not fair that, you know, we get the pat on the back of, 'Oh my goodness, you're doing such a good job,' instead of, like, seeing Caeleb Dressel on a news channel and showing all the praise that he gets."

Which is fantastic and well-earned, she continued of the swimmer, a five-time gold medalist in Tokyo, "But did you see that the U.S. Paralympian Jessica Long just won four medals at the same event? Like, nobody's talking about that. So I think not having legs is probably the biggest gift because I can help people understand a new version of life."

Her version is perennially positive, even on the mornings she doesn't feel like climbing out of bed for her 90-minute a.m. pool session, only to return for another two hours in the evening. 

"I'm not going to lie: I do have bad days," Haven admitted. "I do wake up some mornings and not want to go to swim practice. I do want to sleep in the extra 20 minutes. And sometimes I feel like, you know, 'Oh, man, I choose this life. This is really exhausting.'"

Courtesy of Haven Shepherd

But in those harder times, the "naturally happy person" focuses on the moments of joy, whether that's the Dyson vacuum she hopes to buy for her new apartment, the Friends Lego set she's been incrementally putting together or which Smoothie King creation she grabs after her morning practice. 

"I eat like a cartoon character. Like, I just eat the same thing every day," the brand spokesperson joked. "It's rice and salmon and broccoli every day for lunch. But I do switch it up with my smoothies." While chatting with E! News, she was all about the strawberry-banana blend she was sipping, but already fantasizing about the pineapple-based Activator Recovery she'd get the next day. "It's 26 grams of protein," she shared, "so sometimes I just eat that for breakfast."

Moni Lynn Images/Smoothie King

Haven has been drinking up everything life has to offer since she was a "pretty feisty" kid, growing up with two older brothers and four sisters she likens to "four extra mamas, basically." 

Already proficient in the pool by age 3 ("That was just always something that was really important to my dad because we had a pool in our backyard and he didn't want his babies running around not knowing how to swim"), she started out in track before mom Shelly decided to enroll her in a swim clinic. 

"She was like, 'It's summer. You need to cool off,'" Haven recalled. "And they said I was actually really good and I got on a YMCA team. I was there for three months and then I got really good and then I went to a USA Swim Club where I swam all year round."

Though she was initially hesitant at diving into such an intense program as a tween—"I was thinking, 'You're going to take me away from these friends and swimming three days a week?' And, 'Mom, you're going to drive me over here for six days a week and doubles?' I mean, it was a big commitment for my family"—now, she said, "I'm very thankful that they made that choice."

Left off the roster for the 2016 Olympics in Rio just years into her training, she immediately began preparing for the next round. "When I didn't make the Games," she said. "I'm like, 'My goal is Tokyo.'" After five more years (thanks to the year-long COVID delay) of intense swimming and CrossFit ("I did a trial run and I was fifth in the world in my category"), she found herself in Japan on "probably the best senior trip I could ever ask for," she described. "They just brought so many of my friends I felt like, 'Are we here to compete or are we here to have fun?'"

She'll never forget preparing to swim in the 200-meter IM finals against friend and training partner Jessica Long, who nabbed one of her eye-popping 27 career medals (a gold, naturally) in the race. 

Buda Mendes/Getty Images

"I thought I was pretty prepared, but being in that call room right before my race, I never felt the urge to vomit so hard in my life," Haven recalled. "At the time, I was like, 'I am not having fun right now. I am in this call room with Jessica Long and I am hyperventilating and feel like I'm going to throw up.' But then you get out there and the lights are on you and they call out your name. And I was like, 'Okay, this is fun.'"

But, if she's being fully honest, the true highlight of the experience was rooming with bestie Ahalya Lettenberger, who earned silver in their shared event. "We had the room with the balcony, so we were like, 'What are we doing? Is this a dream?'" shared Haven. "And it was just so great to be there with your best friend and knowing that you're going through the same exact thing."

OIS/Joel Marklund/Shutterstock

So, yes, mark her down for Paris in 2024. "It's very exciting to think about, you know, I get to do that whole experience over again in a different country," she raved. "And hopefully they'll pick me again."

But even if she's not given another shot to race past the competition, she intends to, you know, just keep swimming. 

Obviously collecting Olympic medals is the ultimate fantasy, "But the biggest dream I have is just for people to take away something that I taught them," Haven insisted. "Like if I lose my job tomorrow and nobody remembers me, but they do remember the one thing I taught them was just to go out there and be yourself," she'll be more than satisfied.

Continued the athlete, "Knowing that you've touched somebody will probably be my biggest dream."