Paralympic Sprinter and Jumper Scout Bassett Refuses to Be Tokenized

Growing up, the idea of running never crossed Scout Bassett's mind. Prior to getting fitted for her first running prosthetic at 14, she had never actually seen one — it was 2002; carbon-fiber running blades had just started to enter the market and they weren't covered by insurance. Plus, the middle school and high school in her tiny Northern Michigan town didn't even offer track as a sport. Now, she's a world champion with some thoughts on how women like her are treated. 

"I'm really disappointed with how our culture and our media portrays women with disabilities. So often [growing up], the few times that I saw a woman with a disability featured, it was almost to tokenize her, and not truly celebrating her greatness. The disability was always a weakness or the deficiency, instead of that being her power, her strength, her beauty," she says.

Coming to understand that power and strength within herself led Bassett, now 33, to become a world championship medalist in the 100-meters and long jump, the fastest American of her classification ever to run the 100 meters, which is hardly surprising when you consider her resilience and the challenges it has carried her through. 

Bassett grew up in a government-run orphanage in China, after she was abandoned on the street as an infant. When she arrived, she was missing her lower right leg and covered in severe burns from a chemical fire, so she used leather belts and masking tape to get around. She didn't leave the confines of the facility until the age of seven, when she was adopted by an American couple.

Bassett describes herself as being a "timid and reclusive" child with no self-confidence growing up. "I had struggled so much in life at that point to be accepted and to be included — I was always the outsider or the different one. The weight of all of that and having been told 'no' so many times in life causes you to carry a burden that is heavy," Bassett tells me on the phone from San Diego, where she currently lives and is training for her second Paralympic Games.

But after her prosthetist encouraged her to apply for a grant through the Challenged Athletes Foundation for a running prosthetic, she found herself on a track, running and competing for the first time — an emotional and transformative experience, Bassett recalls. "It was the first time in my life where that weight felt lifted," she says. "It was the first time that I felt unlimited and I didn't feel disabled. And I even forgot that I was an amputee." 

It was also the first time in her life that she felt totally exposed — without a skin-colored cosmetic cover over her prosthetic to make it look 'anatomical', and in shorts and a tank with her burn scars totally on display. "That was just a huge moment for me in my life of not only running for the first time, but getting over that fear and that hurdle of being seen," she says. "It was huge for me because I vowed from that day on that I would never be ashamed or embarrassed who I am or what I look like, where I come from, or my story." She never thought she'd become a world class athlete — she came in dead last in that race, by the way — but looking back, "it set me on a path that I never could have ever imagined for my life," she says0

Flash forward to today and Bassett has gone on to compete on the world stage, has posed naked for the Sports Illustrated Body Issue, and was featured in a recent Skims underwear campaign (yes, her phone blew up with texts and calls when  Kim Kardashian unexpectedly posted her photo on her Instagram feed to announce the partnership). And that's not her only big-deal partnership this Olympics season. Bassett is also part of Peloton's lineup of elite athletes. She became a convert during the pandemic (who didn't?) and says the equipment-free workouts on the Peloton app helped her feel less alone in her 500 square-foot apartment when she couldn't meet with her team on the track.

But while Bassett is certainly more visible than ever thanks to an impressive roster of sponsors and partners, her competitive future is still uncertain. She's currently listed as an alternate on the US Track and Field Team after struggling in the trials due to an injury, although it was a miracle she was even able to make it there, she says. In the months leading up to the trials, she faced a major foot injury — Bassett is missing her big toe on her left leg, which puts a lot of stress on the foot, she explains — that felt "like running on knives." As for now, whether or not she'll actually be heading to Tokyo for the Paralympic Games starting on August 24 is still up in the air. 

In the meantime, she's training with everything she's got, which includes not just the grueling workouts but intense recovery with acupuncture and mentally training with a sports psychologist to make sure her head is in the right place, too. But whatever the outcome, Bassett knows she'll be just fine. "Being an athlete, you put so much of your identity into results and medals and performances, and you feel like that's how everybody else judges you," she says. "What I've realized recently is I'm so much more than just the outcome."

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Bassett is grateful for the opportunities coming her way — and she's sure as hell glad she's no longer living out of her car and on friends' couches like when she first started out as a professional athlete — but she says she's just getting started on her real purpose.

"I grew up feeling like I was very alone. I didn't know there were other people like me out there, or that they were going to college, or they were pursuing the Paralympics, because it wasn't visible." (She first learned about the Paralympics while at UCLA on a full merit scholarship.) Now that she has this newfound visibility, she knows the pressure that comes with it. "I'm a woman, I have a disability, I'm an immigrant, I'm Asian. I cross so many of these intersectionalities and to be sort of a face, or a voice is a responsibility that I don't take lightly." She's also acutely aware of the desire to put women like her "into this box of disabled sports and keep them there."

Bassett hopes to use her platform and voice to bring change and reform to the Paralympics, she says. While this year Paralympians will finally earn the same prize money as Olympians, the process of determining who gets to go in the first place is far from equal. "It's great we have equal prize money, but if there isn't gender equality at the Paralympics —Team USA isn't close to a 50/50 percentage — is that really fair? Ten less women [than men] are getting to compete in the Paralympics in track and field alone and therefore there are less opportunities to earn that prize money," she says. She also wants to create opportunities for girls who'll come after her. She's working with the Challenged Athletes Foundation to make sure that more young girls  from all backgrounds have the chance to try running in the first place by giving them the support and equipment they need to make it to the elite level. "Right now, our Paralympic team does not represent the diversity of our country," she says. 

"At the end of the day, I know that I have not done my job and lived in my purpose if I'm not helping to lift others up along the way," she says. "Seeing other young girls whose experience and journey I've been a part of competing with me and living their dream, that's what it's all about. That's what matters. That's what I want my legacy to be." 

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