Paralympian Scout Bassett embraces her story of scars, survival

Behind the scenes of Scout Bassett's Body Issue shoot (3:32)

Paralympic athlete Scout Bassett discusses the hardships she faced in her childhood, including the loss of her leg, and how they shaped her athletic approach. (3:32)

The full 2019 Body Issue experience launches on Sept. 4. In the meantime, check out 10 years of Body archives.

SHE STOOD AT the starting line, her tears barely dry, her breath still catching in her throat like a backfiring muffler. It is accurate but not sufficient to say she didn't want to be there. It's a good beginning, probably, but it doesn't come close to touching what she was feeling inside or what those stuttered breaths and drying tears signified. And even if you escalate the stakes and say she would have rather been anywhere else? Closer, sure, closer, but still a long way from capturing the mix of emotions -- angry, sad, terrified, intimidated, humiliated, self-conscious -- swirling tornadically inside her.

She looked right and left at the other runners. To Scout Bassett's 14-year-old eyes looking out from her 4-foot-6-inch body, everyone else in this 60-meter race -- a qualifying event for the World Para Athletics Championships -- looked at least 10 years older. They were confident and strong and composed and all the other things she was convinced she would never be. What am I doing here? She had arrived that morning at this track in Orlando with a new prosthetic running leg that was barely 24 hours old. She had stood there crying an ugly-girl, why-are-you-making-me-do-this cry while the kind man who made the prosthetic stood in line and paid the $5 fee to get her into the field for the 60-meter dash.

She had never run that far, and she had barely run at all with this leg that had been fitted to her tiny body just a day earlier. It was a blade, unlike anything she had worn before -- masculine, ugly, obvious. It was not skin-colored like her previous legs, or padded to simulate flesh and bone. This thing -- Oh god, how embarrassing -- hanging down her right side, connecting her thigh to the ground, was utterly devoid of pretense. This leg didn't lie or even try to. This leg told the world the truth: She wasn't like everybody else.

She had pleaded with the man and her mother through tears in words that were intelligible only to her. I don't wanna do this! Whyareyoumakingmedothis?

There were stomped feet and balled fists and, ultimately, a surrender -- fine! -- when it became evident that no amount of resistance, no matter how loud or public or frenzied, was going to change anybody's mind.

So she lined up all her inadequacies next to those confident/strong/composed women -- a lineup of unicorns, really -- and looked up at a finish line that appeared eternal. She waited for the starter's gun to go off -- just get this over with -- and when it did, that little 14-year-old with the new leg and the hitched breaths and the puffy eyes did what she felt was required of her:

She ran.

In truth, she didn't so much run as break free. She was slow -- god, was she slow, the absolute slowest -- but with every uncertain stride she left something behind. Everything that held her down for 14 years dropped away: the fears, the sadness, the displacement, the helplessness, the very otherness that had defined her life. The confident/composed/strong were all out there ahead of her, their blades flashing in the sunlight, their bodies churning unapologetically toward a certain future, and for the first time, this little girl was able to see herself in terms of possibility instead of limitation.

She crossed the finish line behind them all and knew, somehow, that she was going to be OK. She would go back to her tiny northern Michigan town and stop trying to convince everyone she was just like everyone else. There would be no more hiding, no more flesh-toned legs that really weren't fooling anybody anyway. This finish line suddenly looked like a starting point. The confident/composed/strong bent down and congratulated her and told her they were proud of her, and she looked up at them in awe and right then and there she made a vow:

I'm never again going to be ashamed of my story, or where I came from.

SIX YEARS EARLIER, one month before her 8th birthday, a 22-pound girl was taken from an orphanage in Nanjing, China, by her new parents. She had no idea how big the world was or that one even existed beyond the walls of the orphanage. She had never heard of America, or seen a white person, or known any caregivers other than the state employees who fed and clothed her. She had not been outside in close to six years. She could see a playground outside the windows, its bars and swings used only to hang laundry.

Records from the orphanage say she arrived as an 18-month-old with a "severely mangled right leg" resulting from a chemical fire. Her right leg exists nowhere in her memory, so she knows the injury and amputation happened early in her life and it happened in China, and there is no practical reason to ponder the specifics. She knows someone left her, the leg either mangled or missing, the burns on her tiny body either wounds or scars, on a street in Nanjing, where she was found and taken to a police station before being sent to the orphanage.

And even before she found out how big the world could be, the little girl knew her life was not sustainable. Somewhere inside her, despite being cut off from the world, despite being not quite 8 years old, she knew she was weak and failing. The small bowls of porridge she ate every day left her the size of a small toddler. She had fallen many times in the trough-style bathrooms that were cruelly difficult to navigate while balancing on one leg. The amputation was poorly done, and in time a bone -- probably a growth plate that was left behind -- extruded from the back of her thigh. The bone made a prosthesis anatomically impractical, and the best they could do in a state-run orphanage full of unwanted children in a country with a one-child policy was a homemade leg connected to her body with four leather straps. The pain was unbearable.

She left the orphanage with the skin at the bottom of her right thigh discolored and tender, still carrying the look of a fresh burn six years later. As she jetted off to a shiny and promising life in the small northern Michigan town of Harbor Springs, she was unaware of air travel. She had no memory of ever riding in a car. She had known nothing, in fact, but deprivation and oppression, but as the plane ascended and China receded, she felt heartsick and homesick.

Terrified, confused and unmoored, she boarded an airplane as Zhu Fuzhi. She got off in the United States as Scout Bassett.

BASSETT, NOW 31, stands 4-foot-9 and weighs 85 pounds, and she is the fastest American of her classification ever to run the 100 meters. It's astonishing to see how fast she can power her body around the track as she trains at an Orlando high school. Her prosthetic running blade -- at $30,000-$40,000 per leg a very distant relative of the one she christened at 14 -- does not include a knee joint, which reduces weight and increases speed but gives her gait a slight side-to-side motion. The 100 meters is an event so illogical for a person of her stature that it's hard to come up with an apt comparison. It's like a 150-pound man playing offensive tackle in the NFL. When she lined up for the 100 final at the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016, she was two lanes over from a 6-3 German bilateral amputee whose blades nearly reached Bassett's hips. Her shoe size is 11C; the C stands for "children's," but she prefers to say "Eleven Cute," with a smile bright enough to wither pessimism.

Her life after being thrust into this massive American experiment has been a search for belonging and identity. Harbor Springs is white and conservative, and the Christian school her parents favored for their three adopted Chinese children was often less than welcoming. "They were so unaccepting of me," she says. "The girls were so noninclusive and mean, and being the only Asian in an all-white school was not fun." Scout buried herself in books, plowing through as many political biographies as her brain could digest, and sports, which felt like the easiest and most direct route to assimilation.

She was 12 when her mother took her to Orlando for the first time to have a custom prosthetic built by Stan Patterson, who was internationally known as a genius in the field. She walked into his business reading a 600-page biography of Barbara Bush.

Patterson leaned over and asked, "Now, Scout, what are your goals?"

"Oh, that's easy," she said. "I just want to have a leg that doesn't fart when I stand up."

Patterson, stunned but trying not to laugh, recovered well enough to tease the little girl.

"Are you sure it's the leg?"

"Oh yeah," she said. "It's the leg."

Patterson laughs when he tells the story, even though he admits he has lost track of the number of times he's told it. He tells it because he always tells it. "Scout hates when I tell it," he says, "which means I have to tell it."

Says Bassett, "That was it, though. That was all I wanted at that point in my life. It was so embarrassing at school. Every time I got out of my chair, it would make this farting noise."

During that first meeting, Patterson assured Bassett that her goal would be met. "We can definitely do that, Scout," he said. "But I really think you can aim higher than that."

A couple of years later, Patterson encouraged her to try on the running prosthetic. "You're going to be an athlete," he told her. Bassett had been riding the bench on volleyball and basketball teams for years. "What do you mean?" she asked him. "I've struggled my whole life. They've never let me play. Why do you think at this point I'm going to be an athlete?" The next day, Patterson took her to that first meet.

"From that point on, I always wanted to run," she says. "I had found something that really made me feel whole."

RUNNING WAS FREEDOM, hope, purpose. Running provided the belonging she sought. Running was identity. She started out with distance running (she has run two marathons) and competitive triathlons through the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

After Bassett's freshman year at UCLA, which she attended on a full ride, she was approached by the Olympics' director of Paralympic track and field.

"I hear you're a runner," Cathy Sellers said. "Have you thought of the Paralympics?"

Bassett, reliving that magical moment nearly 12 years later, says, "As a girl who always wanted to be an elite-level athlete but was never seen that way? Oh yeah -- I'll do Paralympics. Sign me up."

Running saved her. She had been ready to leave UCLA after her freshman year because she once again felt her otherness. The day she moved into her dorm room, her Chinese American roommate unpacked an electric pot of some sort.

"What is that?" Bassett asked.

Her roommate looked at her, thinking she was joking, and when it was clear she wasn't, she said, "It's a rice cooker. What Chinese person doesn't have a rice cooker?"

"She looked at me and sees that I'm Chinese," Bassett says, "but she's confused as to why I'm not more Chinese."

So she ran, away from one thing and toward another. "I've spent lots of time with the question of identity," Bassett says. "I struggle with it because I feel like I have so many different identities. Growing up in a white family and being raised in a white town but being ethnically Chinese, sure, but I'm also an adoptee and I'm a minority and I have a disability. It's like so many different things to struggle with."

Scout grew up with a brother and a sister, both adopted from China, her brother Carter from the same orphanage. Says her sister, Palmer Bassett-Rodriguez, "A lot of people assume that adopted children -- especially those with Scout's background -- should be so grateful all the time. We are very lucky to have parents who gave us as much as they could, but we didn't choose this life, so it's different from our side. And being 7 and adopted like Scout -- there's a lot of stuff you're dealing with for a long time. And no one is going to understand. She felt very alone a lot of the time. But she's healing. Little by little she's healing."

Bassett graduated from UCLA and went to work for a prosthetics company in Orange County. She disliked the job and the time constraints it put on training for the Paralympics, so in 2015 she quit to train full time. She budgeted $25 per week for food, mostly Top Ramen. She slept in her 1992 Toyota Corolla and occasionally on a friend's couch in San Diego, near the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. She deflected pointed questions from friends and family who didn't understand how a graduate of one of the country's best universities would choose this lifestyle. Her father was blunt: He thought it was crazy. But after five months of full-time training, she was offered sponsorships from major companies and was able to afford a place of her own.

"It's that Type A drive," Bassett-Rodriguez says.

The sleeping bag and the pillow she used when she slept in the '92 Corolla were transferred from car to car, finally landing in the back seat of the midsize SUV she's driving now. She wanted them around as a reminder that she no longer needs them.

She was walking to her car after a practice in late July when her coach, former U.S. Olympic hurdler Tonie Campbell, saw the sleeping bag and pillow in the back seat. He stopped and gave her an exasperated look. She followed his eyes and laughed, knowing what was coming.

"Scout," he said. "It's time."

"I know, but ..."

"Scout," he repeated, firmer. "It's time."

She sighed and gave a half-hearted nod. She drove home, parked her car, gathered the sleeping bag and the pillow and carried them inside.

BASSETT HAS THIS disarming habit of interrupting her own conversations and saying, "That's a point I want to come back to later," like a congressman making sure a statement enters into the official record. She is sitting in a room in Patterson's sprawling complex on a Sunday evening after being casted for a new prosthetic that will be fabricated the next morning. The place is remarkably busy. There's a teenage bilateral amputee from a rural town in Uganda who will be fitted for his first professional prostheses. There's a recent amputee learning to walk all over again and an employee who clearly has a massive crush on Scout -- he keeps showing up everywhere she is, always under the guise of "looking for something." She doesn't seem to notice.

But none of the background matters, because Scout has just remembered a point she needs to get back to: the disparity between men and women within Paralympic competition. For the 2020 Paralympics, for instance, Bassett predicts that an 80-member American track and field team would include only 30 women.

"Girls come up to me and say, 'Oh, I don't know if I want to do running because the blades are kind of ugly,'" she says. "I get devastated when I hear that. I tell them, 'But it's how it makes you feel.' That's a problem, and it's a huge part of why I did the Body Issue. We celebrate men who are amputees; a veteran is celebrated as a hero when he goes to war, loses his leg and comes home and puts one of these on. But you see a woman and it's weakness, a bodily imperfection. It's viewed as a deficiency. I want girls to see this and say, 'This is something that is powerful and beautiful and stunning.' I want them to see the places you can go and the things you can overcome through sport."

There are five blades on the counter next to her, each one a different width and stiffness. She picks up the middle one and rotates it as she holds it up to the fluorescent light, admiring its beauty and utility. "This is as big a part of me as anything else," she says. Her smile is enough to turn possibility into reality. She runs her hand across the blade's cross-hatched carbon fiber and slaps it against her palm like a trucker with a tire iron.

"Yes, it looks very masculine," she says. "But I want a girl in my position to look at something like this and say, 'This is badass, and I want one.'"

THREE YEARS AGO, Bassett sat in the parking lot of the orphanage in Nanjing and steeled herself. It was a place that had dulled her spirit and dwindled her body, yet it provided -- strangely -- the sense of belonging she has sought ever since. She left as a confused child a month away from her 8th birthday and returned as an accomplished, outwardly assured 28-year-old who had just competed in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. She finished a disappointing fifth in the 100 and 10th in the long jump, and she carried that disappointment with her to that parking lot. Before she opened the car door, she closed her eyes and said something like a prayer.

I'm going to show these kids there is hope, there is love, there is light, there is possibility.

She was permitted to reenter the orphanage but was not allowed access to any of the living areas or the bathrooms. Still, the past arrived mostly by smell; "Ohhh, the bathroom," she says. "Every once in a while I'll get a whiff of that same smell when I'm in China and it takes me right back to the orphanage."

Improvements have been incremental. There is still no formal schooling, but she met a new "entertainment" teacher who does crafts with the children. Bassett saw children in an empty lot where the playground used to be.

"I was able to face the place that had broken me as a very young girl," she says. "I realized I had carried that brokenness and pain up until then."

She didn't cry once as she walked through the orphanage, and she didn't cry when she played with the children, and she didn't cry when she got back into the car after the visit ended.

She cried for weeks after she got home.

"Seeing those kids gave me a different perspective," Bassett says. "I can only imagine the guilt and shame my parents have lived with, knowing they had to abandon me because they couldn't take care of me."

She walked into the orphanage with no desire to seek out and meet her biological parents. She didn't think she needed the answers to the questions she might ask, and she wasn't sure she wanted to know them even if she could. "Besides," she says, "the chances of me finding my parents in a country of more than a billion people? Really?"

She walked out of the orphanage after feeding babies and passing out sports equipment, and her thoughts had changed. She looked at the faces in front of her, those helpless infants and toddlers who had been abandoned the same way she had. The natural instinct of a mother is not to abandon her child. Can you imagine the burden she and my father have been carrying? She realized she would like to find them not for her but for them, to tell them she's fine, that she made it. She wants to let them see her, to present herself for what she is, a confident, strong, composed young woman whose success spans continents. She wants to stand before them and let them know that it was hard -- and that it sometimes still is -- but that she is alive and healthy and successful. And maybe, come to think of it, she does have something she wants to say to them.

Just three words, perhaps the three most beautiful words in the language:

I forgive you.