On a bright Wednesday morning at K.E. Baker Stadium in Carthage, the third grade girls’ race was the most-anticipated event of the day.
The star of the show at the elementary school track meet: 9-year-old Haven Shepherd, a student at Steadley Elementary.
And though it lasted only a few seconds, when the race was over, Haven found herself surrounded by cameras and reporters on the football field grass answering question after question.
It’s been two years since Haven last ran in a race like this. She was seven then, and though she tried her best, she fell on the track.
This time, though, Haven had a different pair of legs – literally.
Originally from Vietnam, Haven lost her legs when she was barely two years old. Her birth parents were having an affair, and she was born out of wedlock. Ashamed of the transgression, her parents strapped bombs to themselves and held on to Haven as they detonated the devices.
Her parents were killed in the blast, but Haven survived. She lost both legs below the knees, and was adopted by the Shepherd family when she was 19 months old.
“I felt really happy that I finished,” she said on Wednesday. “Even though I got fourth place, I feel really, really happy.”
Haven is still trying to get used to this new pair of legs. Her first pair of running legs, she received them last year through a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Wednesday’s track meet was the first time she’s used them in competition.
“I’m getting used to them, but I’m still trying to learn how to stand up with them,” she said. “I use them to play, to jump rope, all that kind of stuff. They work pretty good for that.”
The Challenged Athletes Foundation helps people with physical challenges participate in sports, and has provided funds to more than 1,100 people in 27 countries as part of its Access for Athletes program. The organization says it will provide $1.7 million in 2012 alone to pay for adaptive equipment, like prosthetics.
Haven has been chosen to be featured on stage next month in New York City during the CAF’s Heroes, Heart and Hope gala, where she will join athletes like 2011 NCAA wrestling champion Anthony Robles, who has just one leg.
“It’s an amazing organization,” said Haven’s mother, Shelly Shepherd. “They work hard every single day.”
She answers almost as many questions as Haven does following the race. She talks about how the running legs were made in Iceland, and about how many different people have looked out for her daughter.
“Obviously I didn’t care if she won or lost, but I didn’t want her to fall,” Shepherd said. “To us, we realize that’s not a big deal, but I knew to her it would be embarrassing again. You just want them to have some successes before they have to deal with another disappointment. I was a little nervous, but we came out here and trained all week. She ran on the track to get comfortable. I knew she was ready.”
Someone asked Haven what happened to her parents.
“My parents had an affair and then they strapped bombs to themselves and I guess they had a hold of me around my waist and it killed them and it blew off my legs,” she answered without hesitation.
Shepherd said she doesn’t want her daughter to be ashamed of anything that happened in the past.
“We just decided to never let there be a time that she remembered this deep, dark secret of us setting her down and telling her her story,” Shepherd said. “We’ve just always talked about it because that is her story. That’s the truth of her life. We knew the sooner she embraced that the better it would be.”
Shepherd admitted it wasn’t easy, though.
“I’ll be honest,” she said. “When we first got her I was like, ‘How am I ever going to tell this beautiful child that her parents tried to kill her and because of that she has a handicap she’ll have for the rest of her life?’”
Haven, meanwhile, has no problem removing the legs to show another reporter how they work. She’s used to the questions, she says.
“When I went to San Diego this news reporter guy talked to me and asked me a lot of questions,” she said.
What was going through her mind when she stepped up to the starting line?
“Just thinking about my race two years ago that’s in my past and all that kind of stuff,” she said. “All my friends say these are really cool running legs, and that makes me really happy that they like it and they treat me like other friends.”
This time Haven didn’t fall.