Few people have overcome adversity in the way Paralympian Scout Bassett has. Born in Nanjing, China and losing her leg in a fire left Bassett on the street at just one and half years of age. She was found and taken to a nearby orphanage where she lived for the next seven years. Suffering from malnutrition, isolation and physical abuse, Bassett once had no sense of a future but somehow knew she would endure and survive.
At seven years old and just 22 pounds, she was adopted by a family from Michigan. The journey was full of heartbreak and traumatic steps for her. It was her first-time riding in a car and stepping outside the doors of the orphanage. Without speaking a word of English, she flew across the world and adjusted to her new life in the small town of Harbor Springs, Michigan.
Discovering sports helped Bassett adapt to life in the United States while empowering her to embrace her unique life story and gain confidence that had been lacking throughout her childhood. Her road to the Paralympic Games has motivated her to be a voice for all Paralympic athletes. Now training for the podium in Tokyo 2020, she is an ambassador for the Challenged Athletes Foundation and has set her goals on creating opportunities for young girls with disabilities.
Last week, Bassett took the time to reflect on the remarkable story of her life that continues to transcend cultural barriers and pave the way for future generations of all athletes.
WSF: What was it like growing up in an orphanage in China and how did things change for you when you came to the United States?
Scout: Shortly after I was born, I was involved in a fire and I lost my right leg. At a year and half old, I was just left on the street of Nanjing and was taken to the Nanjing children’s welfare institute, which is really just the government orphanage for children. I lived there for the next seven years. It was a very isolating time, I didn’t go outside for the seven years that I lived there. I had no concept of the outside world. We had no access to television, books or radio, nothing. We just thought that all kids grew up the way we did. We didn’t know there was any other way to live. During those years of child labor, physical abuse and living off a tiny bowl of rice every day, I did feel a sense a despair and hopelessness because we were the unwanted ones. I had no sense that I had a future.
When I was adopted at 7 years old, I was only 22 lbs. I was clearly malnourished and very, very physically weak. It was such a traumatic and heartbreaking experience for me to come here [to the United States]. I grew up in a small town in Michigan. I was a minority and had a physical disability. I didn’t speak English and it was overwhelming. I remember thinking this just feels so hard and so awful. There were definitely moments where I wanted to go back to where it was familiar.
WSF: How did the role of sports in your life influence your adaptation, can you explain how you first started playing sports?
Scout: I started getting involved in sports in the second grade. It was only because I had heard the kids talking about the sports they were involved in and I didn’t even know what sports were. I heard about how much fun they were having and I told my parents that I wanted to play soccer. I think part of me did it because I wanted to belong and it would help me with the language and cultural barriers.
That’s the beauty of sports, it brings together cultures and worlds and people from all different kinds of backgrounds.
I was always welcome to practice. I never quit even though I knew I wasn’t really wanted or welcome to compete; I was doing it for myself to be active, to be moving and to be outdoors. It was such a liberating feeling for me. It was something that I really needed, but I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence.
WSF: How did experience in sports evolve from influential to transformative?
Scout: It wasn’t until I was 14 years old when I got a running prosthetic and it changed my whole life. I had never run up until that point. I’ll never forget when I went to Orlando, Florida to get my prosthetic leg and my prosthetist had signed me up for a Paralympic style track competition, where everyone was welcome and no one would be denied. I was intrigued by the idea, but the day of the event came and I was terrified. My fear wasn’t running, it was that I would be exposed for the first time. Even when I did sports in my everyday prosthetic, I had a cosmetic cover over my leg that was skin colored and I wore pants often. If wore a dress, I wore a long dress. I was uncomfortable showing people I was an amputee — a lot of it was shame. There were complicated layers to me and that was my fear, I was going to go out there and expose myself and show the world who I was. But I stepped out there that day and ran for the first time. I came in last place, by a lot.
For the first time, I was able to go out there to run and overcome this massive fear of who I was and accept this identity.
I realized that I was okay and it’s okay to be out there and to show the world who you are and to be exposed in that way. There was nothing to be ashamed of, and it was that day that I made the decision to never be ashamed of who I was and where I came from. It was a very empowering feeling, I gained the confidence that had been lacking my whole life. It was just a total inside-out transformation.
WSF: What drew you to triathlons and how did you get involved?
Scout: It was sort of by accident, I started getting involved in triathlons because I was going to college at UCLA on a full ride merit scholarship and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to be on a sports team. I wasn’t earning an athletic scholarship, but I wanted something to keep me active. There was a small distance triathlon event there. I didn’t have a swimming background and I had only learned to ride a two-wheel bike when I was 18 years old. I knew how to run but I had to figure out the other two. That’s how I got involved.
I am part of the Challenged Athlete Community and had heard that Triathlon was a world championship sport; at the time, Triathlon was not a Paralympic sport. I didn’t really even know much about the Paralympics because I didn’t grow up with that type of exposure.
Then my sophomore year at UCLA, I was contacted by Cathy Sellers, the high-performance director for U.S. Paralympics for Track & Field. She contacted me because she heard that I was a triathlete and she was hoping to recruit more women to the sport. The gap between males and females was massive. She was really looking to recruit more young girls. I kind of laughed because growing up we didn’t even have a track & field team. She said it was a Paralympic sport and asked if I would be interested in the 2012 Paralympics in London. My whole life I was excluded to compete at that level, so I was excited about the challenge.
WSF: What was the experience like going back to China in 2011 for the first time since you were adopted to compete in the IPC Athletics World Championships?
Scout: I don’t think anything can prepare you for an experience like that. I wanted to come back and say I am grateful for my experiences in my life. I had thought about it for so many years. I started balling my eyes out when I stepped off the airplane in Beijing. I wouldn’t be who I am today…I wouldn’t have the strength or the courage or the perseverance without my experiences in China. Then on the day of the actual World Championships I started to cry at the start line.
It was really emotional. I felt so overwhelmed in a lot of ways. The locals there knew my life story and that I was born in that country. I felt so much support and love when my name was announced that I cried almost the entire race. It was such happiness to be so embraced so positively. I finished in first place that day. I didn’t go back to the orphanage that trip—that came the year of Rio. It was a great first step for me to get the peace and closure that I needed.
WSF: A year later, in 2012, you missed the U.S. Paralympic team. Despite the disappointment you persevered and four years later, at age 27, you made your first U.S. Paralympic Team and competed in the Rio 2016 Games. What advice do you have for other athletes who are on the verge of giving up on a sport they love?
Scout: I’m involved with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) and it’s given me the opportunity to mentor young children, especially young girls that have physical disabilities. I’ve actually met lots of adoptees through the foundation and being able to be a mentor to these young girls and to their families and help them through their journey has been very important to me. When I missed the team, I had so many of them contact me after.
In my heartbreak during that time, it was devastating. I felt like a massive failure and such a disappointment but, as I was talking to these girls that I mentor, I realized that I’m their role model. I am their hero and I wasn’t going to be that girl they look up to that didn’t make her first team and just quit. I certainly wouldn’t want that for them in their future. That was a huge inspiration for me to keep going but also just a personal goal and determination that failure has the power to push you forward. I didn’t want to be defined by that failure so I committed myself to another four years.
My advice is that if you love something, if it’s important to you and you know why you are doing it, then you’ve gotta just keep going and keep working towards that dream every single day. I focused on what I needed to do every single day to set myself up for the best possible situation to make the team [in 2016].
WSF: What are your goals for 2020 and what is your training like these days?
Scout: I was devastated when I placed 5th and I missed the podium in 2016. I knew right away I was going to do another four years. I was just scratching the surface of what I could do so going forward towards Tokyo is to get on that podium. I’m working on improving my skill set and my technique and continuing to have this passion and hunger to get better; that’s really my goal athletically. Outside of that, more importantly, I want to help as many girls along the way to get involved in sports and do Paralympic sports and experience the power. That’s really my passion and just as important for me to get on the podium in Tokyo. Training is 5 days a week and really is a 9-5 job with the recovery and strength conditioning. Everyday it’s a full-time gig but right now my training is more focused on improving my technique.
WSF: When did you first hear about the Women’s Sports Foundation and what did it mean to you to be the recipient of its Travel & Training Fund in 2013?
Scout: I was looking for ways to pay a coach and a trainer and I didn’t have those funds. So, I was looking online for grants. I came across the WSF website and I started following WSF on Twitter. I saw a tweet about the Travel & Training Fund. I applied and when I received the grant, it really did allow me to hire an elite level coach. It was such a huge help for me and made a huge impact. I was not training on the elite level before that because I didn’t have the resources. In 2012, I finished last place in the 100-meter and one year later—after I got the grant—I won the 100-meter. It just shows the impact of getting the right training and being in the right situation. It was a turnaround year for me. I have never lost a championship since.
On Wednesday, February 7, Scout Bassett will have the opportunity to travel to Capitol Hill with the Women’s Sports Foundation to celebrate the 32nd annual National Girls & Women in Sports Day, a day celebrating the extraordinary achievements of women and girls in sports. Check back in a few weeks for Scout’s reflections on her visit to Washington, D.C.
Olympic medalist swimmer Kim Vandenberg is a member of the WSF Digital Contributor Team.