The unstoppable spirit of Paralympian Scout Bassett
When she was just an infant, Scout Bassett lost her right leg in a fire. She lived in an orphanage in China until she was almost 8 years old, when she was adopted and brought to the United States. But Scout’s struggles were just beginning, and it wasn’t until she was fitted with a running prosthetic that her life really began to change.
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MALE PODCAST PRODUCER:
OK, this is Scout Bassett interview, rolling and recording. [SOUND OF SLATE CLAPPING]
IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, HOST:
I wanted to interview Scout Bassett for this podcast because I am just in awe of everything that she has overcome, not just as an athlete but also as a person. Scout is such a force, and every time I have the opportunity to hear her speak, I’m always blown away by her tenacity, her resilience. But you know, honestly, just her storytelling. She takes you to those really early moments in the orphanage as a young child and having experienced such trauma in those really formative years of her life. She is such a strong person, but that strength is something that we can all teach ourselves to have. To show up as, you know, your own superhero.
From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
IBTIHAJ: Scout Bassett is a Paralympian, a five-time world medalist, and most importantly, she’s my good friend. Hi, Scout.
Hi, Ibti. It’s so good to see you.
IBTIHAJ: Good to see you, too. You were born in China and didn’t come to the United States until you were almost eight years old. Please tell the story of how you ended up in Harbor Springs, Michigan.
SCOUT: So as you said, I was born in Nanjing, China, which is about an hour and 15 minutes northwest of Shanghai. A city of about eight million people, so hardly a small town. That’s where I lost my leg in a fire, and at a year and a half old, I was left on the streets of Nanjing, found, taken to a local police station in Nanjing, and then placed in the Nanjing orphanage. My only goal was just to survive. Another day, another meal, another — if there was another meal. There was absolutely nothing that gave me — that gave us any hope of a better life, of a future, of something else to look forward to. We didn’t have access to television, books, TV, radio, music — nothing. So we lived these very isolated lives where we didn’t see children growing up somewhere else, doing other things, or like — it sounds crazy, but even if you asked me at that time, “Did you have any dreams?”, I would say, “No.” But I was so blessed that at almost eight years old, I was adopted by a couple from northern Michigan and brought to America, weighing all of 22 pounds [CHUCKLES], and not speaking a word of English. So that’s how I got here.
IBTIHAJ: One thing I love about you, Scout, is just your positivity, even in the face of adversity. What was it like when you first arrived in the United States? I’d imagine it wasn’t an easy transition, right?
SCOUT: Absolutely. I don’t know why I’m, like, crying talking to you, because I’ve known you so closely, but — when I was adopted, lots of people think, “Oh, you must be so thrilled that here you were being, like, saved or rescued and brought to a country like America.” Like, that’s the dream, right? And for me, I didn’t even know what that was. I didn’t know there was another life outside the orphanage. I never went outside, like, never left the premise of that orphanage, the walls of that place. So just the idea of trying to fathom going to America, having parents, a family, was just beyond what I could even process. And I think people forget that when you’ve grown up in a certain environment, you are going through a process of being conditioned to think that that’s normal. The other kids, the other orphans, are really your family, and you’re having this shared experience of going through all this trauma together, and the idea of leaving behind the only thing I’d ever known — these other kids — it was devastating for me. And outside of the one time that my parents came to see me 10 months before they actually adopted me, I had never seen non-Chinese people, never even on TV or pictures or anything like that. So it was really terrifying, I think far more terrifying than what most people can even process. And it’s not like they sat you down, the caretakers, and said, “Here’s what’s happening to you. This is about to happen. This is the process.” There was none of that. It was one day, this is all I’d ever known, and the next day, leaving the walls of that place for the first time, getting in a car, a plane, a train — not that any explanation of that would have really made sense, but it was really traumatic in itself.
IBTIHAJ: I mean, I can only imagine, right, the trauma that you’ve experienced in your life. Scout, for a lot of athletes, sport becomes an outlet, right? An escape from trauma. Can you talk to me a little bit about your first experience in sports and how you got involved?
SCOUT: So let me paint this picture for you. I come to a small town of 1,600 people. I can count on one hand the number of minorities that lived in this small town. And I have a disability. I don’t speak the language. So I quickly realize I’m the foreigner and the other. And obviously, this made it very difficult to socialize, to make friends. There’s a language barrier, there’s a cultural barrier. But I remember in second grade going to school and hearing the other kids talk about city league youth soccer and softball. I think it’s safe to say neither my parents even really have an athletic gene in their DNA. [LAUGHS] We didn’t even watch sports on TV, so I have even no idea what soccer and softball is. But I just remember them coming to school and talking about how much fun they had. So I go home and tell my parents I want to do soccer. And they were like, “Mmm…OK, sure.” And so I signed up for a sport every season of every year: soccer, softball, basketball — I mean, anything. And I didn’t hardly ever play. Like, I came and worked and practiced just as hard as everybody else. But when it came to the games or tournaments, I rarely ever got to play. In fact, there were many seasons where everybody else played but me, right? And this is at a time where it’s, like, everybody’s supposed to play. “And you get a ribbon, and you get a ribbon, and — ” [LAUGHS] Except, like, that wasn’t the case. And it’s funny, because even though — even in the orphanage I had a disability, I was unique in that way — it wasn’t really until I grew up here that I realized how different my journey was going to be, and difficult in many ways, because in many ways, it was sports that magnified that I didn’t belong. But part of me felt like, oh, if I didn’t show up for a sport, they would think, “Oh, finally, like, that girl with the missing leg, we don’t have to deal with her anymore.” And I think just the stubborn, like, prideful part of me just did not want to give them that satisfaction, because you have to have a tremendous amount of strength, of perseverance, of determination to show up, to exist in environments where you know that you’re not wanted. And that’s another lesson, right? Of, just, the importance of sometimes just showing up in life and what that can mean.
IBTIHAJ: So important, those words, because that — that can apply to anyone.
IBTIHAJ: And it should apply to all of us, right? You don’t have to feel welcome, even though we all should.
IBTIHAJ: Sometimes it — you know, things don’t pan out that way. But I love your resilience in that moment to show up. And I mean, some may call it pride, but I call it — [SCOUT LAUGHS] you know, you being resilient and you understanding how important space is and equity is even when it comes to sport. But I’m hoping that you get to tell the story of your first race, because it’s not something you really planned on doing.
SCOUT: No. In fact, I never had aspirations to do sports at an elite level. If I wasn’t being included at this level, how am I going to be included at the next level? But I was 14 years old, and this gentleman who has made my prosthetics since I was 12 years old — I see him all the way in Orlando, Florida — he told me, “Scout, I think you can run.” And I remember looking at him like, “Uhh, you’re crazy.” [LAUGHS] Because I had never been able to run. I was struggling to do sports on my everyday walking prosthetic, which at this time was not high-tech at all. And he’s like, “No, no, there’s these new running legs and feet.” And, and he told me about this foundation called the Challenge Athletes Foundation that provides running prosthetics. I applied for a grant to get this running prosthetic, and he told me, “We’re going to sign you up for this Paralympic-style track and field meet.” Mind you, this has all been in one week, of first time running to this competition.
The day of the race, we get there. This is at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. We’re not in, in small-town Michigan anymore. He had bought me this, like. little running outfit, right? Shorts, a little tank top. And I just had this, like, total meltdown, panic attack — like, the whole, like, total snot, everything running down my face. And I was like, “I’m not doing this.” And he said, “If I have to tell the race director to hold up this race, I will.” Like, “We are not leaving until you run this race.”
I was not afraid of actually running, I was afraid of being seen. Because up until I was 14, I had worn a cosmetic cover over my walking prosthetic. I don’t know who I was fooling, because everybody knew I was the girl with the one leg, so. But there was some sort of security in sort of hiding behind that. And when you wear a running prosthetic in these shorts, there was no way to hide that. And that’s what I was afraid of, is stepping out onto this track, and the stands are filled, and having to be seen for the first time with my prosthetic, all of it, uncovered.
So I run the 60, and I came in last place. By a lot. But I had forgotten about all the things that I was afraid of. Like, I thought I would run and people would be laughing, or they would be staring or like, you know, giving me the pity clap. And maybe they were. But I didn’t think about that. I just thought about the feeling of being able to run for the first time. And it was such an important, transformational moment in my life, because from that point on, I decided that I would never be ashamed of what I look like, of where I come from, of my story, and most importantly, of the things that we cannot change about ourselves. All the chains that had held me down as a young girl — when I ran, I felt like they were just lifted. And that’s why I decided from that moment on, I would always run, but never thought I would do it at a, a competitive level.
[PULSING ELECTRONIC MUSIC]
IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
[PULSING ELECTRONIC MUSIC FADES OUT]
IBTIHAJ: And now back to my conversation with Paralympian Scout Bassett.
[DRAMATIC PIANO MUSIC]
IBTIHAJ: It’s really clear that you have a level of determination that it seems like you can only buy in stores. I mean, it — [SCOUT LAUGHS] it’s, honestly, it’s really remarkable how you are able to take these moments and turn them into transformational moments for yourself and, honestly, for others, especially for me, as a friend, even just to hear your words. But I think a lot of people are still confused about what the Paralympics are and what an achievement it is to compete. Can you tell me, what did it take for you to get good enough to qualify for your first Paralympic team?
SCOUT: I was recruited by US Paralympics when I was a sophomore at UCLA and decided to go for the Paralympics in 2012. I went to those trials and I got in last place in all the events. It wasn’t, like, by a little — it was by a lot. And I remember being heartbroken and thinking to myself, like, “Well, maybe I don’t belong and maybe I’m not good enough,” and sort of all the doubts and insecurities that you feel as, you know, a young girl. It’s like, well, maybe it’s just validated by, by this experience, right? By this result. And then I — one of the things that kind of happened around that same time is I was starting to mentor some other young kids with disabilities, and so many of them and their parents had written me and, and said, “Oh, you’re going to try again, right?” And I remember being like, “No way.” Like, I’m so humiliated, right? But then I thought about how, when I grew up, I didn’t have older role models — women, even men — to look up to that were athletes with disabilities. You didn’t see them on TV, they weren’t on a Nike ad. And so I just remember thinking I didn’t want these kids to see somebody that they had looked up to fail and never try again.
And the year before the Paralympics in 2015, I decided, “All right, I have to go all in, and I have to do whatever it takes to make this team.” And so I found a coach at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego who was willing to coach me, and he said, “I will take you to the Paralympics. You just have to find a way to get here to practice every day.” Well, at the time, I was too prideful to tell him that I didn’t have a place to live, I didn’t have money to, like, find a place to live. And so I — between my car and on my friends’ couches and spare rooms, I did that leading up to the Rio Paralympic Games. And I went from — I think I was, like, 28th in the world to top five in six months. And that’s how I made my first Paralympic team. It was wild. [LAUGHS]
IBTIHAJ: Wild, to say the least. I always tell people, like, hardest thing I’ve ever done is just qualifying, right? And —
SCOUT: Yes. Yes.
IBTIHAJ: — I mean, so take me to that moment competing at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. What was it like to actually be there?
SCOUT: Well, I wish I had known you then, because we could have hung out. [CHUCKLES] But I remember just being exhausted because of, you know — everything takes so long: to get food, to go to practice, to see the trainer. But the minute that the 100 meters came — they take you the longest walk of your life around the track to the starting line, and I remember just tears streaming down my face, like, tears of such joy. Like, you know, you think about your journey, and the things that you have walked through and lived through in your life and, and never in a million years could you ever script that you would go from being left on the streets and growing up in an orphanage to competing at the Paralympic Games. It was just, like, a super-emotional moment, and hard to go from that to, like, “OK, now I need to actually kick some ass here.” [LAUGHS]
IBTIHAJ: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
SCOUT: Might have been a bit much for that moment.
IBTIHAJ: Well, I don’t think anything prepares you for that moment of competing, you know, at the Games. You can either have an experience like you had, where, you know, it makes you emotional. For me, I felt like a bit “deer in the headlights” and kind of had to find, you know, even my voice — as you know, like, in my sport, voice is so important, you know, just to get yourself going. But this past summer, you participated in the games as an analyst for NBC. NBC has aired a record number of hours from the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, but that still doesn’t come close to the number of hours the network airs from the Olympics. Why do you think it’s important for fans at home to be able to watch these events?
SCOUT: We all go through challenges and struggles, adversity, and I find that, in each one of the stories and the athletes, you can find a piece of yourself in them. But it’s also really compelling to see a race and a competition and see how close and competitive and talented. And as we get better about the storytelling aspect, and getting these athletes out, elevating them, lifting them up where — you know, you watch and you, you sort of feel a connection to somebody — I think that’s just going to grow the movement and the sport forward. But it can also teach us, most importantly, a valuable lesson of what it means to talk about disability, what that looks like, especially for, for kids, right? As you’re sitting down with your family, and kids are curious and they want to know, “Well, why does she look like that?” or “Why does she have that prosthetic?” or “Why does she run that way?” I think it’s really important to engage young kids into these conversations so that when they see somebody like me at a supermarket, they’re not fearful, they’re not screaming, but they will have seen it before, and think like, “Oh, that’s really cool.” And if they want to ask questions, then to do so, as opposed to being afraid.
IBTIHAJ: And it’s important, you know — you speak about children; it’s important for adults, too, right? For us to understand how to interact, you know, with one another, what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate.
Scout, last July, you were on the cover of SELF magazine. My favorite cover of all time. [SCOUT LAUGHS] You talked a lot about wanting to change the way people see amputees, especially how female amputees see themselves. What do you want people to see when they look at you?
SCOUT: Oh, thank you so much for asking that. One of the things I noticed about our culture was that men with disabilities were being celebrated as heroic, honorable. And when we see characters in, like, The Theory of Everything or Glee, all these characters were men. And I remember being, like, so disappointed by that. Like, how little we see women with disabilities in fashion and beauty, those industries that are so critical of the human body, right, and what that looks like. And so, you know, part of doing that cover and ESPN Body was to really send the message that a woman with a disability is beautiful and that she can be powerful and strong. That’s how I see myself. And that’s how I feel about myself. But I say that because I didn’t always feel that way about myself.
SCOUT: In fact, I always say and truly believe that while I don’t want to be defined by my disability and I would never, like, want that as to be my main identifier, I can now see, you know, my prosthetic, the loss of my limb, as really a form of my power. And I say that because of, of what it’s helped me to become and and just what I’ve been able to do because of it. And that’s really, I hope, what we’re telling in the stories that we’re telling.
IBTIHAJ: Over the past year, there’s been a lot of talk about athletes and mental health, with Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka really leading the conversation. I’ve spoken about my own struggles in my memoir, Proud. And you’ve talked about the challenges that you faced after visiting the orphanage where you grew up. What was that experience like for you and what advice do you have for others who are struggling with dark thoughts?
SCOUT: Yes. So in 2016, only five days after competing in Rio, I had the opportunity to go back to the orphanage that I grew up in. I don’t think anything in life can prepare you for that kind of experience. Going back, for me, really just ripped open all of those wounds. You know, the smell, the sense, the people just brought it all back for me and, and really, like, how broken I was because of it. But you know, I didn’t really think of myself being broken, because here I am, like, a Paralympian, and I’m succeeding and I have done more than I ever could have dreamed of. But inside, there was so much scar tissue that had never really healed. But afterwards, I came back, and I, like, had to take everything that happened and like, process it. It got so bad that I had to, like, actually seek medical help and go on medication, because I did not know how to get myself out of this place.
SCOUT: And I’m so thankful that, you know, in talking with a friend about the feelings and thoughts and the emotions I was having, she was the one that really encouraged me to talk to somebody, to seek help. And for me to realize that it’s OK A) not to be OK and B) it’s perfectly OK to seek whatever help that you need to process trauma, grief, loss, pain, whatever it might be — or even if it’s not any of those things, but you’re just in a dark place — it’s OK to do whatever you need to to get the help that you need. And it was a two-year journey for me of going through that. That was really painful. And I can remember times where I didn’t think I was going to make it to the other side. And I’m so thankful that — through a lot of help, a lot of work, a lot of support and love — that I was able to get to the other side of it and see that, well, it’s not like those things ever fully leave you. That wholeness is achievable in spite of, of whatever trauma you have experienced. And I’m really thankful for that.
IBTIHAJ: You brought up so many great points, Scout. I know that for me, when I lost my sister a few years ago —
IBTIHAJ: — I thought that being in that state of grief was not something I would ever be able to, like, crawl out of. And —
IBTIHAJ: — you know, someone said something to me — and this was the day she passed away, actually — that someone was my Uber driver, believe it or not. But he said to me that grief is like the ocean, and it comes in waves, you know, but it’s always there.
IBTIHAJ: And so even though it may feel really painful right now, you know, it won’t always feel like this. But it can surprise you.
IBTIHAJ: Right? You can feel overwhelmed by it, but know that, you know, you do have control, and that you can choose to seek help, you can choose to talk about it. And that’s why it’s so important for, you know, people like you to tell your story, because for a lot of us, in our communities that we exist in, speaking about mental health is taboo.
SCOUT: Or they see people like you that have achieved so much or are so successful — “Well, what could she possibly ever be feeling low about? Look at her life.” Right?
SCOUT: Like, how many people walk around with those things? And before you know it, 10, 20 years has gone by, and you’ve been unconsciously parked at that place of grief, of loss, of pain, of trauma. And that’s how I was, and I used all the success to mask it, because I thought, “Well, because I’ve made it, like, I’m fine now.” Right? And that really was the furthest from the truth.
IBTIHAJ: It’s so important that we take care of ourselves and show up for ourselves, and a huge piece of that puzzle is just being willing to talk about it. So for you, you started with a friend. I started with my Uber driver. [SCOUT LAUGHS] But we can all get there in a time that, you know, works for us. One thing that I find so beautiful about you, Scout, and the work that you do is that you mentor young girls. What do you want them to learn from your experience?
SCOUT: I want these young girls to always know and to believe that exactly who and how they are is enough. Because I remember growing up feeling like all the things that made me so different — my experiences, what I look like, my ethnicity — were the things that made me feel like I didn’t belong and that I wasn’t enough. And I want them to know that the things that they cannot change about themselves, the events and circumstances that were far beyond their control, those are things that they can embrace and they can really use and harness as their strength and as their power. But most importantly, to never let anybody to limit or to define who they are or what they can be or what they can do. To keep fighting for whatever dreams or goals or aspirations that they have.
IBTIHAJ: I wish I had those words as a young person.
SCOUT: Me too. Me too. [LAUGHS]
IBTIHAJ: What’s next for you, Scout?
SCOUT: Well, I’ve actually made a big change in my life in going to a new coach and a new program and a new training environment, and that’s been really good for me. As you know, I did not make Tokyo 2020 and just was really devastated by that. I had a bit of a rough year leading up to that, as many people did. And you know, I think in many ways, it would have been easy to say, “You know what? I’m done, I’m good.” And I just felt like that wasn’t it for me. And so I’m making a change with hopes and goals that we will be at Paris 2024.
IBTIHAJ: Scout, I don’t know if you know this, but you are an icon. And this will be —
SCOUT [LAUGHS]: As you are, too.
IBTIHAJ: — you know, a story for the books. You are inspiring so many people around the world, but particularly, you know, young kids out there who live with the same disability. Scout, thank you so much for spending some time with us today.
SCOUT: It’s always so great to see you and chat with you. I’m going to make you feel a little embarrassed — so sorry about this — but I’m just so thankful for you, and really, the ways that you have inspired me, moved me. Most importantly, watching you use your voice for change and for good has really empowered me to do the same. So thank you so much. I really appreciate your time. Thank you for having me on as a guest.
IBTIHAJ: Yeah, of course!
IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation.
Next week on the podcast: Asif Bodi and Abubakar Bhula are lifelong Liverpool fans. They’re also Muslim. In March of 2015, the two men found a quiet place in the stadium to pray. Soon after, a photo appeared on Twitter along with the caption, “Muslims praying at half time at the match yesterday #DISGRACE.”
What makes you think it’s disgraceful? You’ve got to be a bit more explanatory, haven’t you? You’ve got to say why.
IBTIHAJ: Two years later, Liverpool signed Mohamed Salah to their squad, and everything changed. That’s next time, on The Long Game.