Scout Bassett logs into our Zoom meeting from a cookie-cutter hotel room somewhere in Texas. Her hair is slicked back in a low bun as neat as the bed behind her, and she’s wearing a few dainty gold necklaces and a Nike quarter-zip. She’s in San Antonio for a track meet—the first she’s competed in since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Prior to this her last competition was in November 2019 at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai. There she placed 8th in the 100-meter dash and 10th in the long jump. “I’m excited but anxious,” Bassett tells me of racing again. “Knowing what an important year this is, you want to come out strong.” (Later that weekend, Bassett would win her division in both the long jump and the 100-meter race.)
Early on in the pandemic, when the future of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games was still uncertain, Bassett would meet her coach at public parks in San Diego, where she lives, to train. To keep in racing shape, she balanced those days with at-home workouts, like yoga, stretching, and strength training. Physically she was making sure to stay on top of her game. Mentally, however, she struggled. “It was quite challenging mentally for me,” Bassett says. “I live alone, so that was really tough, because going to the track every day—having my teammates and coach and other people—is really the only social interaction I get.”
Now that the rescheduled Games are approaching, Bassett is back to training with her Paralympic team five or six days a week for five or six hours a day. Not counted in those five or six hours are everything else that goes into a world-class athlete’s day: stretching, warming up, physical therapy, fueling her body. “All of that is part of the training and the job too,” Bassett says. “I’ve really tried to embrace that—enjoying the process, the journey. Loving what I do. Not focusing so much on the outcome or the results, but just loving the process.” Though some aspects of this process sound tedious and time-consuming, Bassett relishes it all.
“People love the rewards of what the outcome is, but they don’t always enjoy the process,” she says. “I’m just trying to learn to do that. It’s the taking my Epsom salt bath at night. It’s the getting my facials. I know it sounds so superficial, but for me, when I take care of my body, my skin, my health, physically, mentally, emotionally—that’s when I feel like I’m at my best.”
Bassett spent much of her younger years in a government-run orphanage in China, where she’d been abandoned when she was 12 months old. She’s never found out how she got there or who dropped her off, but when she arrived, she was missing her lower right leg and was covered in burns and scars from a chemical fire.
At the orphanage Bassett used a makeshift prosthetic made of leather belts and masking tape to get around. She says she endured years of abuse, including starvation and forced child labor. In 1995, at the age of seven, she was adopted by Joe and Susan Bassett, along with two other Chinese children, and immigrated to Harbor Springs, Michigan.
The transition wasn’t easy. Bassett says that between her disability and the fact that she was the only minority in her grade, she was often excluded at school. She recalls going to school on a Monday and realizing someone had had a birthday party over the weekend. “I hated P.E. class because we would pick teams,” she says. “And of course, I was never the first. I was always the last or at the very bottom. There were all these everyday reminders of why you didn’t belong.”
Once in the States, Scout was fitted with a proper prosthetic, one that she could wear every day. She played sports like basketball, softball, and tennis but had a hard time using her everyday prosthetic during that kind of physical activity. So in 2001, when Scout was 12, the Bassetts met with well-known prosthetist Stan Patterson for the first time, hoping he could create a prosthetic that would allow Scout to simply play sports with her peers—running, pivoting, making quick turns. Patterson, who is certified by the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics & Pedorthics and whose practice specializes in high-performance prosthetics, encouraged Scout to start running competitively. Two years later he fitted her with her first running prosthetic. During a trip to Orlando for her fitting, Bassett raced in her first meet on a whim. She came in last, but it was enough to change her life forever.
“When I put on this running leg, suddenly the thing that really held me back was no longer holding me back,” Bassett tells me. “It just changed my whole thinking and how I felt about myself. It was from that moment that I really felt like I had some hope of the future.”
The more Bassett ran, the more she learned to accept who she is outside of sports too. As a preteen Bassett wore a cosmetic cover over her everyday prosthetic. (A cosmetic cover is a stocking, usually skin-colored, that along with a foam attachment goes over a prosthetic limb to give it a more anatomical, fleshlike appearance.) “I didn’t want to stand out,” Bassett says. “I didn’t want it to be noticeable. Deep down there was a lot of shame and embarrassment involved with that. And that’s really the root of why I covered it and hid it.”
When Patterson presented her with the running prosthetic, Bassett realized she wouldn’t be able to use a cosmetic cover, since that would add weight and affect mobility. “I remember being devastated,” Bassett says. “Just going to the spiraling effect—the extreme of, ‘If I can’t have a cosmetic cover over it, then I’m not going to run.’” Eventually, clearly, she changed her mind. “The moment I did run, I felt this freedom and unlimited feeling, and all the chains that had weighed me down as a young girl were just lifted,” Bassett says. “When I ran, I felt like I was going to be okay. I have running, and no matter what, I’m able to do something I never thought I could do.”
That’s not to say Bassett doesn’t sometimes still grapple with a negative body image. “My relationship with my body has been evolving. Like every woman, I’m really no different,” she says. “Every woman has something about themselves that they perhaps don’t love or wish they could change.” As the 4′9″ athlete notes, “It’s one thing to be small and petite. But then I’m like, Why do I have to have my leg missing? And why do I have to have so many burns?” Having a body that so much of the world sees as damaged or broken has been hard for her to accept. But realizing she could run was pivotal for helping her unpack the self-shame that had, up until then, been deeply rooted for her. “That was the first time I said to myself that I would never be ashamed of my story, of where I come from. And most importantly of events and things about myself that I cannot change.”
Next month Bassett will head to Tokyo to compete in the Paralympic Games. It will be her second time in the Paralympics: In the 2016 Rio Games, she placed 5th in the 100-meter race and 10th in the long jump. Bassett says the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games, along with the time off from competitive racing altogether, enabled her to make changes to her prosthetic she wouldn’t have had the time to do otherwise.
Bassett refers to the trial and error of finding the right running prosthetic as “a lot of plug and play.” “There are many people who assume that running with the prosthetic is like going to the local sporting goods store: You buy an outfit, you buy a pair of running shoes, and you’re out the door,” she tells me. “And it’s not that way at all.”
In reality, finding the right fit and performance for her prosthetic has been a yearslong process. “Part of the thing I really like about this industry is that the technology is always changing,” Bassett says. “To be an elite-level athlete, the best ones are constantly pushing that envelope, seeing what’s out there. How do we get better, faster, more efficient? All those things. You have to be constantly evaluating.”
That evaluation involved switching back to a blade she’d run with before. She’s had a lot of success training with it since. And then there’s the socket—the typically plastic piece that holds the residual limb in place—which Bassett also upgraded during this time off.
Bassett’s new socket requires her to front-load more of her body weight onto the bottom of her femur, which pounds against the socket every time she runs. The lower part of her residual limb is still sensitive from scar tissue and burned skin. With every stride, she digs again and again into one of the most vulnerable parts of her body. It took weeks for Bassett to adjust.
“It was a great lesson for me—as it is for all things in my life—of, you just have to be willing to persist,” Bassett says. “You have to be willing to suffer a little bit. You have to be willing to get through the immense discomfort, even the pain, and on the other side of that are really great results.”
Bassett also keeps a journal where she steadily catalogs how her body feels. Throughout the pandemic, Bassett has documented each workout, including her times, effort level, and how she’s feeling more broadly. She notes how she adjusted her prosthetic that day; whether it was more comfortable or not. She rates her pain on a scale of 1 to 10, closes her notebook, and does it all again the next day.
“When you’re an amputee, you have to be so in tune with your body, and in particular your residual limb, because the occurrences of infections or bone spurs—those things are all very normal,” she says. “So you have to be constantly paying attention.”
That attention now extends to her mental health. When Bassett was 28, soon after the Rio Games, she went back to the orphanage in China for the first time. She doled out sporting goods to orphans, fed babies, and played with children. Bassett recalls this moment as the onset of one of the hardest seasons of her life. “The experience was so profound and so healing to be able to go back and to love on these children, and to have a message of love and hope for them,” she says. But the weeks and months that followed cast a darker shadow, revealing unprocessed trauma and emotions that bubbled back to the surface with a vengeance.
“I went through a really dark place after that of not being okay and having these panic attacks and not being able to sleep,” Bassett tells me. “I got a whiff of that smell [of the orphanage] and suddenly it took me right back where I was as a young girl.” Bassett says the next two years were difficult for her. She had never realized how much her past held her back from experiencing all the joy she is so keen on sucking out of life.
“It was a great reminder for me that we all have a choice,” she says. “And that no matter what’s happened to you, even if it wasn’t your fault, you have a choice of what you’re going to do with that and whether or not you want to stay parked there or you want to become whole and to heal.” Bassett got started on “a lot of therapy,” she says, and is now in a much better place.
“There have been times when I thought I was so damaged and broken and traumatized, that the scars were so big and deep, I didn’t think wholeness was really achievable,” she says. “To go through a two-year journey of such intense, deep therapy and getting medical help for that, I realized that it is achievable. But you have to be willing to do the work.”
Bassett is determined to help reshape conventional opinions about women with disabilities, who she says are often negatively portrayed in media and entertainment. “Men are celebrated as heroes—Transformer-like, bionic,” Bassett says. For contrast she points to a character Anne Hathaway played in the 2020 movie The Witches. “She had deformed hands [and] her character is evil. That’s how we cast women [with disabilities]: in these demeaning, fearful—not powerful, beautiful, strong—roles. I think it’s really important that society, not just here in the States but globally, sees women with disabilities as not being deficient.”
As a counter to perceptions of disability, Bassett tries to use her interactions with the public as opportunities to educate. It can sometimes be an uncomfortable process.
“I am very used to being self-conscious as an amputee because everywhere you go, people stare at you,” she says. “They’re not looking at your shoulders up. They’re not seeing how pretty you are or anything about your face. Typically, when people stare at me, they’re looking down.”
To illustrate this, Bassett lays out the kind of everyday scenario she deals with—the type of thing that actually occurred just the other day, she says. Let’s say she’s in the grocery store. A woman is shopping with her young daughter. The child notices Bassett’s missing leg. The child is curious, so she starts shouting, “Look at that fake leg!” and “What is that, Mom?” Bassett says that in over 90% of these scenarios, the parent shushes the kid—“trying to deter the child from engaging or education,” she explains. “I am devastated when that happens because it teaches the child that there’s something wrong with that. The child goes on thinking that’s not okay—to be afraid. That it’s taboo—hush-hush.
“I never want that to happen because then those things become cyclical,” Bassett continues. “It forms their viewpoint, their thoughts, their opinions.” So when possible, Bassett walks over to the family. “It’s okay,” she’ll say calmly to the child, showing them her prosthetic. “Do you have any questions? Do you want to see how it moves?” Sometimes, “Do you want to touch it?”
Bassett also hopes to use her platform to increase Asian representation. “You don’t see a lot of Paralympic athletes that get a lot of opportunities, and certainly Asians are extremely underrepresented in media, entertainment, and sports,” she says. She says she’s had a difficult time coping with the nationwide increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. “The more recent violence has just been heartbreaking and devastating,” she says. “When it first started, I thought, I wish America loved Asian people as much as they love our food. Because they’re happy to love sushi and ramen and Chinese food and whatnot.”
At the same time, she’s grateful for the growing cultural conversations about Asian identity. “What is great about this movement is that I feel like that narrative is changing. We are not the silent, submissive, just-stay-quiet group. And that you’re seeing voices that are speaking out and talking about their experiences.” Voices, increasingly, including her own.
Throughout our conversation, I notice Bassett’s unwavering ability to engage empathetically with people of seemingly all backgrounds. She takes a sincere moment to thank me for sharing that I am fascinated by trauma because I live with it too. She mentors younger Para athletes who similarly race beside able-bodied runners. (“I say, ‘It doesn’t matter how far ahead or behind the other girls are. Just run your own race.’”) When discussing the rise of anti-Asian hate during the pandemic, she recounts a story of her trying to cough inconspicuously in a grocery store after a run, and being yelled at by a fellow shopper who demanded to know if she was “from Wuhan.” Of the racist attack, Bassett simply says, “I felt terrible for her. She [has] a business and they lost a ton of money and their businesses had to shut down. I get where she was coming from.”
Bassett describes herself as “keenly aware” of the many identities she represents—“the intersectionality of so many different things, being an immigrant, being a woman, being an adoptee, being Asian, having a disability”—and it’s clear that even though it can be difficult, she’s found peace with the idea that, whether she’s going about her day or representing her country on the world stage, she often does so with the expectation of speaking for different communities. She says, for example, that she tries to be nice to people, even when they say rude things to her, because she doesn’t want a bad interaction to shape how someone views people with disabilities. “I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to always be so poised,” she says. “Sometimes the heaviness that comes with being a pioneer in some ways is that you aren’t necessarily afforded the opportunity to make the same number of blunders or mistakes as other people.”
Because of her willingness to bear the burden of being educator, spokesperson, and role model for several underrepresented identities, it can be easy to think of Bassett as an endlessly strong inspirational figure. But the reality, of course, is much more complicated, and yet much simpler. Like many people, Bassett is processing her trauma, coping with life as a survivor, and committed to improving herself. Thankfully for all of us, she’s generously sharing what she’s learned along the way.
“This is all a part of my story,” she says. “It’s a reminder of the trauma, the loss, the pain that I have suffered physically, emotionally, and mentally. But it’s also the very thing that is powerful and important, and can even be really beautiful about somebody. It tells a really important story of being a warrior, a survivor, a fighter.”