From Amputee to Paralympics Swimmer

“I should have died that night.” Haven Shepherd reflects on what became a tragic night 17 years ago. The night that she lost both legs. But that didn’t stop her. Today, she is competing in the Tokyo Paralympics. But how did she get there and what are the Paralympics? Read on to find out more about Haven Shepherd and her journey to the Paralympics. 

Who is Haven Shepherd?

So who is Haven Shepherd? Haven Shepherd was born as Do Thi Thuy Phuong in March 2003 to a couple in Vietnam. Now 17 years old, Haven lives in Carthage, Missouri with her family and is currently homeschooled. She is an avid swimmer and runner, competing in many competitions. But what is so different about her compared to other swimmers and runners? Here is her story. 

From Vietnam to Missouri

Haven was born in March 2003 in Vietnam. When she was just 14 months old, her father detonated two bombs inside their small hut. Her father was destitute and unable to care for their family. On July 19, 2004, Mr. Phuong, Haven’s father, came home with two bombs. Placing Haven in between, he strapped one on himself and the other on Haven’s mother. Then he detonated them. Mr. Phuong and Mrs. Phuong both died instantly. Haven should have died too. But, by a sheer miracle, Haven lived. She was catapulted out the door. Her legs were mangled beyond repair. Luckily, someone came upon the site of the explosion and found Haven lying there. They took her to her maternal grandma, who rushed her to the hospital on a motorcycle. Shortly after arriving at the hospital, the doctors decided to amputate her legs below the knees. Haven writes that so many things could have killed her that night: blood loss, shock, shrapnel, fire, and even extreme poverty. Due to her grandparents’ inability to pay the hospital bill, money was donated by other patients and their families for her to stay in the hospital. Her hospital stay lasted 38 days. Little did they know, her adoptive family was thousands of miles away in the middle of  Missouri. 

In Carthage, Missouri, just two years earlier, Shelly Shepherd had a very strong feeling that something was missing. Already having six children of her own, she felt that their family needed the seventh child. She was being called to adopt. She brought up the subject of adoption to her husband Rob, who was not easily convinced. Shelly continued to pursue the subject with her husband, who finally consented two years later. They began the process of finding a child who needed a home. Just one week later, they heard the horrific story of a baby in Vietnam who had survived a bomb blast. On a medical visa, the Shepherds traveled with Touch a Life Foundation to bring the baby to the United States to receive more medical care. After arriving in Vietnam, they went to visit the hospital. The baby and the Shepherds bonded immediately. Six months later, Do Thi Thuy Phuong officially became Haven Shepherd. 

Her Journey to Tokyo 

When Haven joined the Shepherd family, she joined a family with six kids. There were five girls and two boys. She became the youngest of seven. Amazingly, she fit right in. She wanted to follow in her siblings’ footsteps, so she began track. Unfortunately for her, her first-ever track meet in elementary school was a failure. She was attempting to run on what she called “walking legs.”Her prosthetic legs weren’t made for running, only walking. She ended up falling during the race. Embarrassed but persistent, Haven turned to Challenged Athletes Foundation for help. The foundation gave the Shepherd family a grant to purchase Ossur Running Feet which would enable her to run. At age 7, she pursued adaptive track, but she quickly realized that track was not going to be her sport. She says she felt pain when she ran, and she didn’t like her legs getting hot and sweaty. So at ten years old, she tried competitive swimming. She was hooked! Her reason: she could remove her prosthetics and move freely in the water without any help from adaptive equipment or another human. At just 12 years old, she was put on the United States Paralympic Emerging Team. She has competed in numerous competitions, including the 2017 Cam-Am Open, the 2018 World Para Swimming World Series in Indianapolis, and the 2019 World Para Swimming World Series in Indianapolis. In 2017, she won 1st place in all five swimming at the Can-Am Open. At the 2018 World Para Swimming World Series, she won 1st place in the 50 freestyle and 100 freestyle, 2nd place in 200 IM and 100 butterfly stroke, and 4th place in the 100 breaststroke. At the 2019 World Para Swimming World Series, she won 2nd place in the 100 breaststroke, 3rd place in the 200 IM, 4th in the 50 freestyle, and 5th in the 100 backstrokes. In June of this year, after the United States Paralympic Team Trials in Minneapolis, she received the most exciting news ever: she made the United States Paralympic Team. She was ecstatic to finally achieve her dream of competing in the Paralympics. Four years ago, she fell short of making the national team due to a “disappointing” performance in the 100 breaststroke and finishing just three seconds under the qualifying time in the 200 individual medley. Beginning August 24, you can watch Haven compete in the Tokyo Paralympics on NBC, NBCN, and the Olympic channel. 

History of the Paralympics

For more than 100 years, sports for athletes with an impairment have existed. It wasn’t until after World War II that it was introduced as a way to help injured veterans and civilians. What began as a rehabilitation sport eventually evolved into a competition sport. The first paralympic games were held in 1948 and were called the Stoke Mandeville Games. Dr. Ludwig Guttman, who opened a spinal injuries center at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Great Britain, organized the first event. The first event consisted of 16 injured servicemen and women in wheelchairs who competed in archery. The Stoke Mandeville Games became the International Stoke Mandeville Games when Dutch ex-servicemen joined the movement in 1952. Eight years later, these games evolved into what is known as the Paralympic Games. The first official Paralympic Games featured 400 athletes from 23 countries and were held in Rome, Italy. They have been held every four years, just like the Olympics since then. Just like the Olympics, there is an opening ceremony and a closing ceremony. Since 1988, the paralympic games have been held in the same cities as the Olympics as a result of an agreement between the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympics Committee (IPC). Today, you can see more than 539 events across 22 sports. Sports included in this year’s Paralympics include archery, athletics, swimming, badminton, boccia, canoe, cycling, equestrian, soccer 5-a-side, goalball, judo, powerlifting, shooting, sitting volleyball, table tennis, taekwondo, triathlon, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair fencing, wheelchair rugby, and wheelchair tennis. Athletes with a variety of disabilities participate in the Paralympics. This year, 98 countries are participating in the events. Check out the schedule and catch up on all the latest news at the official Paralympics website. 

Other Paralympians Who Were Adopted

Just like the Olympics, there are many Paralympians that were adopted. Just to name a few: Jessica Long, Tatyana McFadden, and Matt Stutzman. These three Paralympians and their stories will inspire you. Here are their stories:

Jessica Long 

We first heard Jessica Long’s personal story in a 60 second Toyota commercial during the 2021 Superbowl. What was shown in that 60 seconds was a story of hope, courage, and triumph. More than 9,000 km from the United States in Siberia, Russia, a young teenage girl gave birth to a baby girl. She named her Tatiana Olegovna Kirillova. Tatiana was born with fibular hemimelia, a rare condition characterized by not having most of the bones in the feet. The sixteen-year-old feared she would not be able to adequately care for her daughter, so she took her to an orphanage. She spent the first 13 months of her life in an orphanage, but at 13 months old, Beth and Steve Long came to the orphanage to adopt Tatiana and another little boy. Tatiana became known as Jessica, and the little boy became known as Joshua. Jessica and Joshua traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, to begin a new life. Five months after arriving in the United States, Jessica had her first surgery out of a total of 25. In order to improve mobility with her prosthetic legs, she had to have both legs amputated below the knees. She eventually learned to walk using prostheses. Her swimming career began in her grandparents’ pool. Long loved to pretend she was a mermaid. She said she enjoyed swimming because “when I’m in the pool, I never really feel like I’m missing my legs.” She began to excel at swimming, and by age 12, she was competing in the Paralympics. At her first Paralympics in 2004, she took home three gold medals. She has competed in every Paralympics since and aims to add to her 23 medals. Beginning August 24, you can watch her compete alongside Haven Shepherd. 

Tatyana McFadden 

Thirty-two years ago, the fastest woman in the world was born in the Soviet Union. What is remarkable about this woman is that she is in a wheelchair! Yes, that’s right! Tatyana was born with Spina Bifida, a congenital disability that can cause moderate to severe physical and intellectual disabilities. For Tatyana, the congenital disability caused her to be paralyzed from the waist down. Unable to care for her daughter, Tatyana’s birth mother abandoned her in an impoverished orphanage. With no wheelchair, Tatyana learned to walk on her hands. Six years later, in 1993, the Commissioner of Disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services came to visit the orphanage on a business trip. While there, a connection was made between Tatyana and the commissioner, Deborah. Deborah McFadden decided to adopt Tatyana and brought her to the United States. To build her muscles, Tatyana’s parents enrolled her in a variety of sports to include gymnastics, swimming, track and field, and wheelchair basketball. None of these sports seemed to please her. At one point, she attempted wheelchair racing and fell in love with it immediately. The powerful arms that she had developed in the orphanage gave her success in the sport. By 2004, McFadden was competing in her first Paralympics. In her Paralympic debut, she was the youngest member of Team USA and came home with a silver and a bronze medal. She has since won 15 more Paralympic medals and will be competing in Tokyo. You can see her compete in the Track and Field events in Tokyo beginning August 24. You can read more about her on her website.

Matt Stutzman 

Thirty-nine years ago, a healthy little boy was born in Kansas City, Kansas. While he was healthy in almost every single way, Matt had no arms. At four months old, baby Matt was placed for adoption. His parents would be unable to care for him. At 13 months old, Matt was brought home to his forever family, the Stutzman family. After being fitted with his first prosthetics, Matt began to adjust to his new life, and by 18 months old, he had learned how to walk and feed himself. His family just let Matt learn to do things on his own. They didn’t treat him any different. If he could do it by himself without help, then they let him. He helped out on the family farm doing all kinds of jobs, from feeding the calves to going fishing. Growing up on a farm, Matt loved the outdoors. After discovering he could shoot a gun and needing to feed his family, Matt took up archery. He is known as the World’s Armless Archer. He has competed in both the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games, winning a silver medal in 2012. You will be able to see him compete in Compound Archery at the 2021 Paralympic games in Tokyo, which begin on August 24. 

People with Special Needs Can Achieve

These four stories show us that people with special needs can achieve anything their dreams, given the right environment to grow up in. Adoption is important. Perhaps you would consider adopting someone with special needs.