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How 'Mulan' inspired Paralympian Scout Bassett to embrace her inner warrior

Scout Bassett attended the Los Angeles premiere of "Mulan" in March. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the movie's general release was postponed to Sept. 4. The film will be available on Disney+ on Friday. Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP Images

Editor's Note: Scout Bassett, 32, is a Paralympian who competes in the 100 meters and the long jump. Bassett competed in the 2016 Rio Games and plans to be at next year's Tokyo Games.

When I was in the fifth grade, I dressed up in a qipao, a traditional Chinese dress, with my hair in a half-pony with a scrunchie that didn't match my outfit -- a bad attempt at a high bun -- for school picture day. At that point, I might've been a little too old to dress up like this for a school picture, but I insisted on this look -- I thought it was so cool! But all of the other kids in my class were like, "What are you wearing?"

Growing and going to school in the predominantly white town of Harbor Spring, Michigan, I was one of only a few Asian kids in our entire county. The other kids didn't hold back with their comments, and I remember thinking, "Maybe this isn't cool?" or "Maybe there's something wrong with what I'm wearing?" But then I remembered why I was wearing it. I wanted to look like Mulan, the legendary Chinese female warrior. She was my inspiration for dressing up that day. She would become a huge inspiration throughout my life.

Growing up, I loved "Mulan." When I was 10, I remember watching the Disney animated version of the film for the first time shortly after it was released in 1998. Then I remember watching it again. And again. And again. I probably burned through the VHS tape, I watched it so regularly.

I wanted to dress up like Mulan because I felt a closeness to her physically and mentally. In 1995, five years before my fifth-grade picture day, I was adopted by an American family living in Michigan. My parents also adopted my younger brother, Carter, from the same orphanage and my younger sister, Palmer Bassett-Rodriguez, from China at that time. For the first seven years of my life, I lived in a government-run orphanage in Nanjing, China. As an infant, I lost my right leg in a chemical fire. I looked different from many other kids at my school and in my community. I struggled to embrace my identity as a Chinese girl with a disability. I was different. And I knew that.

But then I saw "Mulan" for the first time. I saw someone who looked like me. For the first few years of my life in America, I didn't have other Asian girls to look up to or admire -- not even in mainstream media. Mulan was different.

Watching "Mulan" as a young girl, I witnessed a Chinese woman demonstrating power and bravery that I didn't even realize was possible. Mulan wasn't afraid to push boundaries and fight for what she wanted and believed in. She was the epitome of strength and courage, even when others doubted and criticized her lofty and ambitious goals.

In the second grade, I started to get involved in youth sports. At that time, I was still learning English and getting used to life in America. My parents signed me up for sports -- basketball, golf, tennis and softball -- as a way to feel more connected with the other kids and the American lifestyle.

When I first joined the youth teams, I was largely excluded. I was allowed to be there at practices and games. But I was often denied the opportunity to play in competitions and be at tournaments. For the first time, I was experiencing the discrimination and prejudice that people with disabilities face. Despite all of this, I still loved sports.

During those early years, I realized that my life and journey in the sports world would be challenging. It was another barrier that prevented me from being accepted by the other kids. There was a presumption of where I belonged or didn't belong because of my physical disability in sports. And that was really difficult for me to accept.

These initial experiences of not belonging had a huge impact on my self-confidence. The exclusionary experience of being marginalized in sports, feeling like I wasn't enough and that I didn't belong, took a toll on me.

But then I watched "Mulan." I saw how she embraced being a warrior and how she held power in standing against the status quo, and I knew that I could also be like Mulan. It's one of the reasons I stayed in sports.

I struggled to connect with kids in the classroom and in sports -- whether it be because of my disability, ethnicity or the simple fact that I just wasn't into girlie things like some of my peers. It was hard to accept so many things that I couldn't change about myself. But I found my passion for sports. And although I endured a lot of early heartbreak and trauma, I wanted to mirror that honor and bravery that I saw in Mulan. She took a radical and less traditional path. She embraced her strength and inner warrior. And I connected with that, and it's what helped me continue playing sports.

Every season, every year, I signed up for youth sports. And every practice and game, I showed up. I didn't back down just because the others routinely expressed that I didn't belong there.

When Mulan decided to fight for her country and continue fighting even after her true identity was exposed, she demonstrated a form of activism. And for me, when I continually showed up to practices and games, I was also showcasing a form of activism. "Mulan" provided a connection for me that I wasn't offered in real life. For me to live up to my full potential as an athlete and Paralympian, I needed to see a hero that looked like me. I needed "Mulan."

No one expected me to become a professional athlete. Nobody could have predicted that the young girl who often wasn't allowed to compete in the games with the other kids would become a Paralympian. But just like Mulan, I decided to embark on a more challenging path.

When I was 14, I received a running prosthetic from the Challenged Athlete Foundation, and it changed the course of my life. Before getting a running prosthetic blade, I used a standard walking prosthetic while playing sports. Running with this new piece of equipment gave me newfound confidence and a sense of belonging. That moment embodied what Mulan experienced when she embraced herself fighting among the men and continued to fight even after her true identity was revealed, knowing that she was just as capable as the others. The prosthetic blade lifted me to a new level of belief, of self-confidence, of knowing that I would never be ashamed of where I came from, what I looked like and what I could not change about myself or my story. It was my moment of ownership over my life.

It's been over 22 years since I first saw the animated film "Mulan." And this past spring, when I went to the premiere of the live-action adaptation of "Mulan," I was reminded of that moment of ownership in my life.

Part of this ownership is rooted in my connectivity to my homeland in China. Over the years, I've recognized that my experience as an orphan is not necessarily reflective of the country's people. I realized that how I grew up as a child was an extraordinarily unusual circumstance. As a young girl, I hid that part of me. I felt a little bit of shame about my identity as a Chinese orphan who experienced horrific trauma. And that trauma was visible on my body.

Over the years, I've visited China numerous times. During one of those trips, I've gone back to my orphanage. To this day, it's one of the most profound and healing experiences of my life. I needed those moments to understand that I could have endured these heart-wrenching experiences as a child in China and also be very proud of where I come from, of my identity of being Chinese, of recognizing how important it is to represent myself as a Chinese American athlete.

Watching both the animated film and the live-action adaptation of "Mulan" as an adult, I am reminded of the feeling and the closeness that I have with my culture, the country and the people. I'm also reminded of the power of existing in spaces that might not have been built for me.

To be a warrior is to fight for spaces and places that have not always made room for people like me. And that's exactly what Mulan did when she decided to fight for her country despite being a woman in a man's space. It's why I try to trail-blaze a path for young girls and boys with disabilities who might not feel a sense of belonging or acceptance. I want them to know their dreams are valid and representation matters.

Every day, I'm fighting for that.