14-year-old Haven Shepherd makes a splash as a swimming sensation and advocate for para-athletes

(Courtesy of Haven Shepherd Facebook)

(Courtesy of Haven Shepherd Facebook)

The swimmer sets her sights on qualifying for the 2020 Paralympics and increasing awareness about para-athletes.

When Haven Shepherd was little, she would play a game with her mom Shelly called “The advantages of having fake legs.” Haven remembers that “some were funny like being able to go barefoot in the snow or being able to wear shoes that were really too small for me. Others were more serious, like being able to tell my story to help people.”

Haven’s story began in Vietnam. As a baby, she lost both her legs below-the-knee in her biological parents’ suicide bombing. The Shepherd family soon adopted her and brought Haven home to her six siblings in Missouri.

(Courtesy of Haven Shepherd Facebook)

(Courtesy of Haven Shepherd Facebook)

Haven’s supportive family inspired her to get involved in sports. “One thing that is a rule for everybody [in the Shepherd family] is that no one is a victim, and no one gets to feel sorry for themselves,” Haven explains. “That attitude from everyone around me is what gave me the courage to try and be an athlete in the beginning.”

Although Haven began her athletic career on the track, she realised that her passion — and talent — lay in the swimming pool. Haven quickly excelled and at age 12, she made the Paralympics Emerging Swim Team.

“When I get in the water I feel completely free. In the water, I don’t feel disabled,” she says of swimming. Although the teen describes herself as outgoing and social, she enjoys the solitude: “When you are swimming 6,000 yards in a practice, it gives me a lot of time to think and be by myself.”

Being an athlete teaches Haven about discipline and perseverance. She admits that there are days where she doesn’t feel like practising, but she does “what needs to be done” in order to achieve her goals. Although Haven is at the beginning of her athletic journey, she knows that these lessons will be with her forever: “When you come to the end of your sports career what you have left is what you have learned. The medals won’t really matter.”

At 14 years old, Haven is thoughtful, mature and optimistic: “I’ve taken the fact that I don’t have legs and made it a positive in my life. Some things we can’t change, we just need to make the most of it. I like that I stand out and am different. My hope is that all girls could feel that way.”

With the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), Haven is using her platform to help other young people with disabilities. She travels around the U.S. to share her story and meet other para-athletes. Through her work with CAF, Haven hopes to increase awareness about para-athletes. “I just want to show people that people with disabilities are just like everyone else,” Haven explains. “Para-athletes are top athletes who just happen to have some form of physical disability.”

(Courtesy of Caters News Agency)

(Courtesy of Caters News Agency)

Haven laments the lack of Paralympic coverage and acknowledgement in the U.S.: “In Europe, their Paralympians are just as well-known as the Olympians. Most people think the U.S. is always first in these type things, but we are actually behind.” At the 2016 Paralympics, there were only 29 U.S. print and photo journalists, compared to more than 400 U.S. print and photo journalists at the 2016 Olympics.

In addition to advocating for para-athletes, Haven is also part of Models of Diversity, a campaign which hopes to increase the diversity in the fashion, beauty and marketing industries. Through her modelling, Haven strives to “show girls that you can be different and still be pretty.”

Becoming a role model to other young women is important to Haven — she knows firsthand the benefits of having someone to look up to. Jessica Long, 13-time Paralympic gold medallist, is her longtime mentor and friend. Haven remembers Jessica attending her very first swim meet: “I was so nervous. She told me just what to do and was at the finish line with my towel. It made me feel very special. She didn’t have to do that. We are both adopted, and our legs are almost the same. She has shown me how much hard work it takes to be really good.”

Having that influence inspires Haven to support other young athletes: “When we go and speak at schools I’m aware of how those kids watch me and look up to me. I hope I’m as good of role model to them as I have had.”

Between her training and speaking engagements, Haven’s schedule is packed. Last year, she started homeschooling in order to better balance her training, travelling and homework. “One thing I really like about homeschooling is it gives me more time to be artistic,” Haven says. “Painting is very therapeutic to me.” The Marvel-fanatic has a painted mural of “Spider-Man Homecoming” on her bedroom wall.

Haven is currently focused on qualifying for the 2020 Paralympics: “In abled-body swimming, so many people say I’m so inspirational. Anything is good enough because I’m brave enough to try. But with my goal to go to the Paralympics, it’s not good enough to just try. I have to strive for excellence. I may not make it, but I know I have given my ALL every day. I like that feeling.”

(Courtesy of Haven Shepherd Facebook)

(Courtesy of Haven Shepherd Facebook)

Although Haven already has many accomplishments to her name — including an Endurance Live Award, which is known as the the Academy Awards of endurance sports — she has dreams beyond “having a great story and surviving.” Haven says, “I will be proudest when I accomplish some of my goals I have set for myself now.”

In addition to competing at the Paralympics, Haven’s other goals include becoming an esthetician and meeting her biological grandparents and half-sister in Vietnam. She wants to tell them “thank you for giving me a chance to have such a full and happy life and to let them know I’m OK.”

Haven’s journey is just beginning but we know that wherever this incredible young swimmer goes, she is bound to make a splash.



Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.