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Paralympic swimming hopeful Haven Shepherd’s journey prompted by suicide

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CARTHAGE, Mo. (AP) — Miracle No. 1: Haven Shepherd wasn’t killed.

Her dad, destitute, desperate and unable to support a child, brought a pair of bombs to their small hut in Vietnam. He strapped one to himself and the other to Haven’s mom and placed Haven, then 14 months old, in between.

The parents died instantly.

Haven was catapulted out the door. Her legs were mangled beyond repair, but she survived.

Her adopted parents, Rob and Shelly Shepherd, have pictures of Haven sitting on her maternal grandmother’s lap a few days after the explosions, on a metal bed against a wall in a hospital that looks more like an Army barracks. The baby is wearing a gold tank top, holding a twig from a fruit tree. Her legs are meticulously wrapped at the ends of the stumps that remained after doctors removed everything below both knees.

Months later, when the Shepherds brought Haven to a hospital in Kansas City, the surgeons were amazed. Often, children whose legs are amputated at a very young age encounter problems that require revisions through the years — surgeries that can be every bit as daunting and debilitating as the original amputations.

Not for Haven.

“They said the amputation was, like, perfect,” Shelly Shepherd said.

It’s one of the many reasons Haven, now 15, developed into an elite swimmer and now has her sights set on the Paralympics in 2020.

Miracle No. 2: Forgiveness.

Maybe it’s adolescent naiveté. Perhaps it’s due to wisdom beyond her years. Most likely it’s a bit of both. But Haven harbors no resentment toward the birth parents who tried to blow her up.

She was too young to remember any of it — not her birth mother who raised her in the early months, not the explosion that propelled her 30 feet out the door, not the grieving grandparents who had her potty trained before she was 2 and took care of her until the Shepherds came.

“This is the dilemma about me,” Haven says. “I don’t feel anything toward them because, in the end, they gave me the best life I could imagine.”

That life begins in a desolate, thatched-roof hut in a remote village in Quang Nam Province in Vietnam.

Her birth family was, by accounts from local newspapers at the time, the poorest in the village.

According to the story told to Rob and Shelly when they arrived to bring Haven back to the United States, her parents weren’t married to each other.

Divorce in Vietnam was taboo, not considered an option. And because Haven’s birth parents were each married to other people and had very little to live on, they felt stuck.

And while the Shepherds reached out to help Haven recover from the unthinkable, the unwanted baby from Vietnam helped heal her adopted family, too.

Two years before Haven was born, Rob and his brother Terry were towing a dunk tank from a company picnic at a rural flour mill in Pierce City, Missouri. As they exited, the truck got tangled on a decorative archway that guided visitors to the party, lurching backward as the tank fell forward.

It landed on Terry’s neck, killing him instantly.

Four years earlier, Rob’s dad died of a heart attack.

The sudden, unexpected deaths of two of his closest relatives — who were also partners in the family’s longtime hardwood-flooring business — shut off a light within Rob. The couple sometimes doubted it could be rekindled.

“He was suffering in silence,” Shelly Shepherd said. “It’s what made it so cool about seeing him on the trip to Vietnam. I could see him beginning to come back alive.”

Before the trip, the Shepherds had reached another turning point.

Though they had six children, Shelly started following stories about orphans in faraway lands who lived in abject poverty. She began feeling an urge to adopt.

“It became the last thing I would go to bed thinking about, the first thing I thought about when I woke up,” she said. “We had to go through marriage counseling. I was like, ‘I want to let this go, but I can’t.’”

Rob eventually, though reluctantly, came around to the idea of adopting a child. But the trip to Vietnam was not for that.

The Shepherds made the journey to accompany Pam and Randy Cope, who sought permission to find a home for Haven in the United States after the story of the baby girl who survived her parents’ suicide made big news in Vietnam.

The Copes ran a foundation to help care for street kids in the country — established following the death of their own 15-year-old son, Jansen — and used their connections to open a path to place Haven with another family.

It was going to be a difficult trip to one of the remotest corners of the country — a journey filled with red tape, government officials and, of course, the emotional handover of the girl from her still-grieving grandparents, who did not have the resources to care for her. The Copes asked the Shepherds if they wanted to come along.

Rob and Shelly remember the trip vividly — from the long motorcycle ride through the jungle on roads that turned into paths; to the swarms of kids who scurried out of their ramshackle huts when Rob pulled out the bag of lollipops; to the rice that Haven’s grandmother spilled onto the porch then quickly scooped up upon their arrival.

They remember the way Haven pressed herself against Rob, at first, sensing he was the one she’d need to win over right away.

They remember sensing, as they held the young girl and bonded with her, a gratefulness that could only be felt, not spoken.

They remember feeling that something was changing.

“We just kept saying, ‘Her adopted parents should be here,’” Shelly said.

One night in Saigon, as they waited at the hospital for Haven to get the shots and medical papers needed for the trip back to America, Haven wore Shelly’s sunglasses and bounced on her knee.

Shelly swung her up high and Haven let out a huge belly laugh.

“I felt something inside of me,” Shelly said. “It was like, ‘Oh … she’s my child.’”

Shelly didn’t sleep a wink on the 38-hour journey from Saigon to the airport in Tulsa, where she and Pam Cope handed off Haven to her adopting parents for the ride to her new home in southwest Missouri.

It was devastating for Shelly.

She had fallen in love with this young girl — nurtured her during the precious moments after her grandparents gave her away, been wooed by the infectious smile and the way she’d charmed Rob and brought him back to life.

“The whole experience had that feeling of, ‘What just happened?’” Rob said. “When we got off the motorcycles, and the grandma handed Haven to Shelly, and she was the very first person who touched her, I knew it. I was in trouble.”

Miracle No. 3: A second chance.

Though the placement family had the best of intentions, it was not a perfect fit. The most pressing issue was that they already had their hands full with a 2-year-old girl at home.

Shelly returned back to her busy life and gave up the idea of adoption. Though they had not considered bringing a child into their house with disabilities, the two weeks in Vietnam changed that. In Shelly’s mind, she had found her baby but was forced to hand her off. No other child could replace that.

It was Pam Cope’s duty to make occasional visits to ensure everything was going well at the adopting home. When Shelly asked her friend how things were going, she noticed Cope’s hesitation.

After several more weeks, the call came. It was Shelly’s birthday.

“She said, ‘I think we need to talk,’” Shelly said.

The Shepherds named her Haven — a name Shelly had long liked, and one that took on a whole new meaning after she and Rob received the toddler in their home.

Next summer, Shelly will bring Haven back to Vietnam to meet the grandparents who gave her away 14 years ago.

Haven isn’t keen on the trip. Her mother feels it’s necessary.

“She says she doesn’t need that, but I tell her, ‘It’s not about you,’” Shelly says. “It’s about the fact that they gave us our child and, for you, you don’t remember the pain in your grandmother’s face. I hold that as a responsibility.”

“I understand all this,” Haven says. “But really, I’m a country girl. I know where I came from.”

With its population of 14,000, Carthage, Missouri is the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone.

Given the long line of basketball and volleyball players, runners and softball stars who came up in the Shepherd household, it was more or less a given that, legs or no, Haven would be an athlete of some sort.

She picked swimming, a sport her parents might have predicted shortly after they met her and placed her in the swimming pool, where they got the first glimpse of a smile that would change their lives.

Haven swims 4,000 to 6,000 yards a day in preparation for a possible trip to Tokyo, for the Paralympics in 2020.

It’s a pressure-packed journey that, at times, can feel overwhelming.

Sometimes, Haven worries about letting down a legion of fans that grows as her story becomes better-known and she and her mom broaden their footprint in the motivational speaking circles where they are in growing demand. Their key message: “It’s cool to be different.”

Sometimes, Haven worries about letting down her family, well aware of the reputation for excellence the Shepherds have carved out in Carthage.

Sometimes, Haven worries about being left behind and not being able to have fun with her friends in Tokyo.

And at times, she is brought back to the humbling reality of how fortunate she is — and how swimming is only one part of her story.

These days, when Shelly Shepherd tells that story, it elicits gasps — sometimes an involuntary “Oh my God” — from the people who hear it.

As her mom gets ready to deliver the gut punch — often to strangers who stop to chat with the friendly mom-and-daughter pair at Walmart, on the street, in the airport — Haven, standing to the side, will sometimes stealthily mouth the words: “Wait for it. Wait for it.”

Once the shock subsides, a beaming Haven assures whoever is listening that she’s doing just fine.

“I don’t think I could’ve lived anywhere else or been raised any differently than how I was,” she said. “I’m a small-town girl from Missouri. When it comes to getting adopted, I got the long end of the stick.”

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MORE: Two years to Tokyo: Five Paralympic storylines

Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 18, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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