As COVID-19 loomed in 2020, a quiet, frenetic energy descended over California’s Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center. Scout Bassett was bracing herself. Tokyo was years in the making, and now the Paralympics were just four months away.“I know there are very few Paralympic athletes that put in as much work as I do,” says Bassett. No one at the facility that day—especially not Bassett—was willing to quit training until a padlocked gate said otherwise.
The paralympian has been training six days a week, five to seven hours a day. At first glance Bassett’s unsuspecting 4’9” frame and ear-to-ear smile disarm you. But don’t underestimate her — this petite woman with a valley girl twang is the world record holder in the 400-meter sprint, the American holder in the 100 and 200 meter, and she also took home the gold in the long jump at the 2019 Parapan American Games.
Trying her best to stick to her routine and not allow the hypotheticals of “What if the Games are cancelled?” distract her, Bassett set up her phone to shoot Instagram stories between reps of deadlifts. As a Nike sponsored athlete and Challenged Athletes Foundation spokesperson, social media is part of her job.
A flood of comments poured into her inbox, chastising her for still training. “You should be training at home, setting an example,” one internet stranger wrote. “No, no I can’t,” Bassett explains over the phone. “If you are preparing for an elite competition, doing stuff at home is not a substitute.”
A few days later the International Olympic Committee announced it’s postponement decision. “It’s absolutely the right decision as this pandemic is far bigger and more important than any medal, record or title,” Bassett writes in a follow up email.
It’s hard to tell what her true feelings are. Perhaps a cocktail of relief, frustration and disappointment. This, however, isn’t the first time that Bassett’s Paralympic dreams were nearly derailed.
Growing up as Zhu Fuzhi
From the day Zhu Fuzhi arrived in the U.S. as Scout Bassett, she felt out of place. Without knowing a word of English and weighing only 22 pounds at 8-years-old, Bassett was inserted into a Rustbelt town of 1,600. “Am I white, am I Chinese, am I in between? Are you disabled, are you not?’” These were questions Bassett asked herself growing up as the only amputee and just one of three Asians — her two adopted siblings are also from China—living in Harbor Springs, Michigan.
As a newborn, a chemical fire mangled her right leg (later amputated) and she was abandoned on the side of the road in Nanjing, China. The seven years that followed were spent in a state-run orphanage where she was not permitted to go outside and fed mostly porridge. A week before her eighth birthday, two monumental events happened: an American couple came to adopt her and she felt the sun’s warmth on her skin for the first time in years.
Growing up, her affinity for sports always confused her parents, who “don’t have an athletic gene in their DNA.”
While playing team sports, Bassett was perpetually benched—she was welcome to show up and practice, but at game time, she was deemed not good enough. Despite the bullying (which even came from coaches), the future world record holder refused to quit.
If Bassett’s childhood had a mantra it would be this: “When you are denied an opportunity, the thing to do is not to surrender, it’s to keep fighting.” Switching from team sports to track and field allowed Bassett her chance to compete. No one would ever bench her again.
When you hear about Bassett and her Energizer Bunny-like dedication to, well, just about whatever she puts her mind to, it’s easy to imagine there’s a supportive family engine propelling her, but, Bassett’s parents “were in a very unhealthy marriage and have since been divorced.” The Paralympian is a master at narrative reframing—she has found strength in her unstable upbringing. “When you live in a place that is unstable, unsafe, toxic, well, you learn how to raise yourself.”
The dream begins
While attending the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) on a full-ride, her dream of being a Paralympic sprinter and long jumper was forged, but the feelings of being an outsider still gnawed at her.
“They call [UCLA] the University of Caucasians Lost among Asians for a reason. My roommate was Chinese. She made me feel a little bit ashamed. She was like, you look Chinese, but you don’t fluently speak the language, and you don’t know how to use a rice cooker. I don’t get how you’re not more Chinese,” Bassett says.
A failed tryout for the 2012 London Games dampened Bassett’s drive further. Ever the A-type, Bassett refocused her energy towards building a nine-to-five career. Three years into starting her well-paying marketing job, the sprinter was getting itchy feet. “I felt like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing—I felt this void of not competing,” says Bassett. She had to go all in.
Looking at her bank account, she had $5,000 saved up. If she was going to try out for the 2016 U.S. Paralympic team, she’d have to survive off of $25 a week. Bassett quit her job, gave up her apartment, and spent the next year couch surfing, occasionally sleeping in her white 1992 Toyota Corolla. Fuelled by a diet of instant noodles and peanut butter sandwiches, the athlete went from twenty-eighth in the world to top five in just six months.
“I ended up beating all the girls who had beaten me four years before—I finished first in all the events,” she says, beaming. It was a fleeting triumph though as she failed to make the podium at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. “They say a lot of Olympic and Paralympic athletes experience the post-game blues, I certainly was in that clique,” says Bassett.
Only five days after the disappointment of the Games, she found herself back on a plane, headed to confront the orphanage she grew up.
“Going back to that orphanage was one of the most profound experiences of my life because it’s hard to face the people and things that have broken us.. I got a sense of closure and a sense of peace.”
Since she left as a child, China experienced reform and the orphanage had some improvements. “Ninety percent of the orphanage there is now for kids with disabilities and it gave me such encouragement to spend a day with these kids.. [It] lifted my spirits and I had a different perspective of being Chinese.. I can be proud of being Chinese,” says Bassett.
She grappled with questions about her future: should she go for another Games or go back to corporate America? “This was the last time I experienced real uncertainty.. Questions of where I come from, who am I? What are you going to do with all this pain and trauma that you’ve suppressed? It took me a couple years to navigate that path,” she explains.
It’s Bassett’s ability to see personal hardships as fuel that propels her.
Today, Bassett is on a crusade to push para-athletics into the mainstream. This is why she gives TED talks, was a Project Runway model, and bared it all for ESPN’s Body Issue.
When Bassett’s telling you stories they come across as unrehearsed and genuine, like she’s catching up with an old friend. That same machine-like drive that pushes her to run faster, jump further, lift heavier, is the same impulse that compels Bassett to stay on message. And if it takes repeating the same anecdotes until she’s blue in the face, that doesn’t seem to faze the Teflon-like athlete, who has spent the last 31 years of her life refusing to kowtow to the refrain “you can’t.” She can, and she will, even if she has to wait until July 2021.
“I truly believe that your journey and story—how you overcome adversity and challenges in your life—will be someone else’s survival guide.”