Scout Bassett's incredible journey from an orphanage in China to the Paralympic stage

Scout Bassett made her first Paralympic team in Rio but feels she has a much better chance to medal in Tokyo. Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images for Tokyo 2020

For someone familiar with the brief synopsis of Scout Bassett's life, it probably sounds like a Hollywood-caliber fairy tale. Abandoned in the streets of Nanjing, China, as a baby after losing her leg and suffering severe burns in a chemical fire, she was then brought to an orphanage where she spent the first seven years of her life. She never left the confines of the facility until she was adopted by a couple in Harbor Springs, Michigan, and brought back to the United States in 1995.

She started playing sports as a way to make friends and learn English, and ended up excelling at both school and athletics. She became involved with the Paralympics while a student at UCLA and is now a two-time world championship medalist in the 100 meters and the long jump, looking to make her second Paralympic team in 2020 for the Tokyo Games.

But Bassett's full story is a little more complicated than it initially appears. While she's managed to overcome many, many odds to reach the world stage, she's had more than her fair share of struggles along the way, and it certainly hasn't been easy since coming to the United States as a young girl. She's now featured in Whistle Sports' "No Days Off" docuseries, and we talked to Bassett, 30, ahead of the episode's release about her challenging childhood, the moment that changed it all, her Paralympic experiences and her work with the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

espnW: Let's start from the beginning. What do you remember about your early life in China?

Scout Bassett: It was not a pleasant childhood or environment to be raised in. I just remember it being very, very dark, and I think it was just more the feeling, the environment. I had no exposure to the outside world, so we didn't have television, books, radio, any sort of media. I grew up thinking that the way I was raised in this environment was just how all kids grow up. I didn't realize that there are families, and I just had such a small way of thinking because I didn't know anything else.

In seven years, I never saw myself. I never saw a picture or a mirror. Growing up as a kid, I didn't know what I looked like. Which is kind of just odd when you think about it. I never thought that I would make it out, because I didn't know any other reality where I would ever leave this place.

espnW: What was it like to find out you had been adopted? Did you have any concept of what America was?

Bassett: I think people make this assumption that I must have been just ecstatic and over the moon that I was being rescued and saved and going to the greatest country in the world. But it was anything but that. I was traumatized. I was heartbroken. I had never seen anyone that wasn't Chinese. I literally thought [the people adopting me] might be a different planet or a different species.

Think about it: You're being taken away and you don't really know what's happening to you and how are you supposed to trust these people that you don't even know and you've never seen before? And now you're outside for the first time. And you're in a car and a train and a plane. I describe it more as just being sick in the pit of your stomach. For the first six months, I just wanted to go back.

I grew up in a small town [in Michigan] of 1,600 people, and I was the only person in my town with a disability and I didn't speak the language. I weighed 22 pounds at almost 8 years old -- I clearly didn't fit in. It was a rough for quite a while.

espnW: So what ultimately changed for you? When did you start to feel like things in your life were starting to turn a corner?

Bassett: When I was 10, I started to find sports. I heard kids talking about playing different sports at school and I wanted to see what it was all about. My parents signed me up for youth soccer. I remember the first day of practice, I was so excited to be there. I struggled at school because I couldn't speak the language. I couldn't read, I couldn't write very well, but language didn't really matter in soccer, and it felt wonderful.

But as the season went on, I quickly found that I just really had a hard time participating and being involved because my mobility was not very good. I did it on my everyday walking prosthetic, which is not made to do sports. So I didn't play much and mostly was on the bench, but I still loved being out there and part of the team.

The real turning point for me was when I was 14 when I found out about the Challenged Athletes Foundation [CAF] and the incredible work they do in providing this very expensive prosthetic equipment that insurance companies didn't cover. Up until that point, I had continued to do everything in my walking prosthetic. I didn't even know about sports prosthetics or adaptive sports equipment or anything.

My prosthetist told me about the organization and how much I would benefit from a running prosthetic. And he told me about applying for a grant, and I got that grant. I ran for the first time that year, and it changed my whole life.

It was a defining moment, the turning point, where I went from unsure of what I would do [to knowing] where my future would be. I had had no aspirations for a college at that point, [but then I started to think], "OK, I can do something with this. I'm born to run. And I am going to do something great with this."

I just didn't know what it would be.

espnW: Wow, what a moment. Is that when you started competitive track and field?

Bassett: Well, that's when I ran my first race. The same prosthetist who had encouraged me to apply for the grant signed me up for a Paralympic-style competition, but I had never even stepped on a track before. I had a meltdown right before, because I was terrified of everyone seeing my prosthetic. I wanted to blend in. I didn't want everyone to know I was an amputee, and I just wasn't comfortable with that identity.

My prosthetist told me there was no way to put a cover on it, and the race director said, "Well, we're not going to start this until you get on the start line. If we have to be here all day, we'll be here."

So ultimately I went out because I didn't want to make other people wait and get mad. But as soon as the race started, I had this amazing feeling. I felt free, I felt unlimited, and like such a weight had been lifted. Seeing these other amazing women run so fast with their prosthetics, it allowed me to realize what was possible.

I came in dead last but had the biggest smile on my face -- you would have never realized just how badly I had lost if you had seen me right then.

espnW: Could you feel an immediate change in your life after that moment?

Bassett: Yes, definitely. I realized after that I would never be ashamed to be an amputee, or of my burns. I'd never be ashamed of my story, of what had happened. And that was such a huge moment for me in my life and a huge victory.

espnW: I know you didn't formally get involved with the Paralympics for a few years after that. How did that come to be?

Bassett: Well, I ended up getting a full merit scholarship to UCLA and went out to California. It was such a dream come true, and unheard of for the town that I grew up in. But [Los Angeles] was such a culture shock compared to my hometown that I found myself wanting to drop out during the first year. However, a Paralympic recruiter reached out to me during my sophomore year because he heard I had been doing marathons and triathlons on my own for fun.

I went to the development camp in California and had the exact same feeling I had experienced at 14. I realized right away this is what I wanted to do. I viewed the Paralympics as the Super Bowl for people with permanent physical disabilities.

espnW: So you dove right in and immediately turned your focus on making the team for London in 2012?

Bassett: Yes, I was determined. I was so excited but then was devastated when I didn't make the team. I thought I was never going to do it again after that. I had just graduated from UCLA, so I thought, "I have a great education. I'm a smart woman. It's probably time to do the normal thing, what any other college graduate does, and try to just go and find a job."

I got a job in Orange County at a medical device company. I still loved to run, though, so I was training part time as well, before and after work every day, with a local college coach. But after a few years, I realized I needed to take a huge risk and quit my job and dedicate myself full time to training in hopes of making the 2016 team.

espnW: Was there something that made you come to that realization?

Bassett: I know I am a role model to young kids, and I received so many letters of support from them and their parents. I just didn't want to be that person who had tried out for her first Paralympic team, followed her dream, the career of her dreams, and didn't make it and then just said, "I'm done, I quit." That really pushed me. So I moved to San Diego and found an amazing coach that said, "I'll train you at the Olympic Training Center if you can find a place to live." And I said, "OK, let's do it."

espnW: What a leap of faith. How were you supporting yourself as you no longer had a job? Where did you live?

Bassett: Honestly, I just figured I would live out of my car. I hopped on various friends' couches and spare rooms for six months and just made it work. I remember budgeting my gas dollars just so I could make it to and from practice. Every single day. I'm like, "OK, will this $25 of gas get me through half of this week?"

It is was that kind of level of desperation. I was determined to do whatever it took to make the team. And it paid off because just having that elite coaching, being in an elite environment in the Olympic Training Center, I went from not even on the map to working my way up to the top five in the world literally within a year.

espnW: So what was it like when you did make the 2016 Paralympic team?

Bassett: So rewarding, so incredible. I wanted to live out this dream so bad. I didn't want to be the girl watching on TV. I wanted to be the girl that other people are watching and cheering for. It made me thankful for everyone who had supported me throughout my life, from the CAF, who had been with me every step of the way, to my coach, Tonie Campbell. It was an experience of a lifetime getting to go [to Rio de Janeiro], and it was such an emotional experience as well.

I remember the night that I stepped onto the track for the 100-meter race and instead of being super excited and happy, I just started crying. I had started my journey on the streets of China being left and abandoned and living in an orphanage. And growing up in a super small town where I was not always embraced and welcomed to do sports to ... I'm living my dream of competing at the Paralympics. It's beyond words. I think my emotions honestly got in the way of my performance, but it was still amazing.

espnW: Since Rio, you've found more success, including two bronze medals at the 2017 world championships. How are you feeling about Tokyo and your chances of making the U.S. team and potentially medaling there?

Bassett: Medaling on the world stage has definitely helped my confidence, and I feel like I'm better prepared now for the Paralympics. As I said, I wasn't in the best mental state in Rio, but I'm excited because I know that I'm in a much better place now. I've had that experience and know what to expect in Tokyo and I've gotten even better.

espnW: What was filming "No Days Off" like, and what do you hope people take away from your story?

Bassett: I think the "No Days Off" title is so fitting for me. Today [Tuesday] is a perfect example -- every fiber of my being hurts. I feel physically awful and I'm not super motivated, but you have to get the work done every single day and give it your all, no matter what.

Filming was great, and the crew made it so easy for me and just captured a truly authentic experience. Nothing was staged, and I feel like it really sums up me and my life.

As a young girl growing up, I just didn't feel like I belonged anywhere. I wish somebody had told me that you are enough, and to never be ashamed of who I am and of my story. Now I'm so proud to tell my story and to show what I've overcome, and hope it can maybe help someone else out there get through adversity.