CARTHAGE, Mo. — Haven Shepherd's life could have ended shortly after it started.
She was born in Vietnam, the result of an affair between her married father and another woman. For reasons that may never be fully clear — from potential societal shunning to financial hardship — her biological mother and father decided to kill themselves and Haven. They strapped suicide bombs to themselves and set them off. Both parents were killed instantly.
But Haven survived.
She was found about 40 feet from their burning home with severe damage to her legs.
Villagers took her to the nearest hospital in Da Nang, where doctors saved her life but couldn't save her legs. Other patients donated to her hospital fund so she could continue receiving care for nearly 40 days.
Meanwhile, across the world in Carthage, Missouri, Rob and Shelly Shepherd felt called to add another child to their family of eight.
Shelly's friend had started a foundation in Vietnam and they were opening a handicap shelter. The friend heard about Haven and told the Shepherds about her.
Initially, they were skeptical.
"I was like, we have so much going on. We'd need a kid with feet, they've got to keep up," Shelly said. "And then when I met her, you know, she's just so joyful...and I realized, it's just feet, we can do this, we can bring her into the family."
At 20 months old, Haven flew with the Shepherds to the United States.
They took her to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City to have a surgeon look at her wounds.
"[The surgeon] was just like, 'I'm just amazed.' He said, 'Her amputations are beautiful. We couldn't have done any better here in our hospital.' And so that was a huge blessing," Shelly said.
Haven blended into the Shepherd family quickly. Her six older siblings were all athletes, and Haven wanted to play sports, too.
At first, she tried running track, but it wasn't a good fit.
"Turns out I really don't like the heat and I don't like to sweat," Haven said. "I just remember telling my mom, I was like, 'I'm done. I don't want to do this.' I quit at the prime age of eight years old."
Haven had been swimming since she was four years old, but until she turned nine, she never considered competing. At her first meet, she realized she had talent and truly enjoyed doing it.
Swimming also had another benefit — she could take off her prosthetic legs for a few hours.
"Not a lot of people realize that wearing prosthetic legs all day is really tiring," Haven said. "And when I get to take my legs off in the middle of the day for like two or three hours, that was like bliss to me."
She started with lessons at the local YMCA. Then she transitioned to Berzerker Swimming, a competitive USA Swimming club.
At age 13, she set the goal of making it to the Paralympics.
"She never really wavered from her decision," Shelly said. "And it's a grueling schedule. I never really had to say, 'yes, you have to go to practice.' She never really questioned it."
Haven continued to rise within the ranks of competitive swimming. When she was 16, she won a silver medal at the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru.
In June of 2021, she competed in the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her performance earned her a spot on Team USA.
"It was just such a long process and [it] didn't really hit me until I got home," Haven said. "I knew how excited I was, but it didn't really hit me because you're just so so stressed for that whole time and then it happened. So you have the relief, and then you're exhausted."
After years of training — including an extra year because of the pandemic — Haven said she's ready to complete the goal she set when she was 13.
"I don't really have any expectations on myself," she said. "I just want to go in being me and having fun."
For her mom, it's a reflection of all of the hard work it took to get to this point.
"When I think about where she came from, the little amputee, just orphaned girl that we picked up, to how much life she has lived in 18 years — that's such a miracle," Shelly said.
Haven continues to share her positive spirit and not dwell on the past.
"I don't look at the things that I've lost," Haven said. "I mean, I've lost so much in my life. I've lost my legs, but I've never let that hold me back."
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games begin Aug. 24. Haven will swim in the 200-meter individual medley on Aug. 28 and the 100-meter breaststroke on Sept. 1. NBC will have primetime coverage as well as streaming options for the events. For more details, visit the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics website.