Scout Bassett nearly dropped out of UCLA her freshman year.
The 4-foot-9 amputee — who spent seven years in a government-run orphanage in China after being abandoned on the side of the road following the loss of her right leg in a chemical fire — had earned a full-ride presidential academic scholarship.
But she was in way over her head.
She was homesick. She was in an unfamiliar environment. She was surrounded by strangers.
She told family and friends she’d drop out and never come back again.
Refusing to give up easily, Bassett stuck it out another year.
That’s when she got a call from U.S. Paralympics High Performance Director Cathy Sellers about attending a development track and field camp at what is now the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California.
Bassett had never stepped on a track before — her high school was so small it didn’t even offer track and field or cross-country as sports — but she had nothing to lose.
“I totally dig this,” she said instantly after her first sprint down the stretch. “Who knows if Cathy would have found me if I hadn’t stuck around.”
The new sport transformed her from the inside out, and its affect was apparent immediately.
“When I found the Paralympics as a sophomore, my whole life really took a totally different path,” Bassett said. “I saw a future and a hope that I never really had before then. I think before that point, I was just floundering and lost, searching for a purpose and an identity. I tried to be an athlete all my life, and up to that point was told I wasn’t worthy of that, and then I found a place with the Paralympics. That really took me to a new place as a human being and helped me overcome the hardships I had growing up in an orphanage.”
Fast forward nine years, and Bassett’s returning to UCLA this week to compete in the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships as the American 100-meter record-holder in the T42 classification. The championships will take place from June 2-4 at the major Division I institution, a massive upgrade for the event that is typically held at smaller-tiered colleges.
At 28, Bassett will be going for her fifth consecutive 100-meter national title and the first in the long jump — still a newer event for her — as she attempts to qualify for July’s World Para Athletics Championships in London.
Her journey to the U.S. podium has been grueling and tenacious, dating back to her infancy when she spent her days in a Chinese orphanage mopping floors, washing dishes and taking care of the younger children before being adopted by an American couple from Michigan in 1995.
“I had never left the orphanage once during that time,” she said. “I came here when I was almost 8 years old, so I wasn’t an infant and was adopted. I had known a whole life before I came to the States and had a lot of memories and experiences. I remember what growing up for eight years in an orphanage in China was like.”
Bassett arrived in Harbor Springs, Michigan — a small conservative town of roughly 1,600 people — as an outlier.
She was the only Asian. She was the only person with a disability.
“As a kid, I struggled just knowing I had a path and a story that for other kids was hard to relate to, and to come here and have to explain that and my disability to these kids and my social environment after not speaking a word of English was so hard,” she said.
Bassett turned to sports as a way to fit in with her peers — a way of transcending social and cultural barriers. She began with softball and soccer before Challenged Athletes Foundation gave her a grant at 14 to fund her endurance sports training.
She went on to compete in triathlons, becoming a three-time world medalist and returning to China for the first time since her adoption in 2011 for the ITU Paratriathlon World Championships.
With the call from Sellers during her sophomore year at UCLA came the transition to track and field, which was a sport on the Paralympic Games program at the time, unlike paratriathlon, which was added for the 2016 Games.
Bassett fought through shin splints her entire first full season, ultimately deciding to go full throttle in her attempt to qualify for the 2012 London Games.
So when she failed to make the U.S. Paralympic Team, she was devastated.
Bassett had finished dead last in the 100-meter at the U.S. championships, which served as the Paralympic Games qualifier.
She nearly quit track and field.
She told family and friends she’d drop out and never run again.
“I came in last place in the 100 meters, and I didn’t come in last by a little; I came in last by quite a bit,” she said. “I remember just being so devastated in Indianapolis at those trials, and that was really my very first big Paralympic competition. It was very humbling, and a bit overwhelming, too, because I realized everyone else was so good. That’s what really made me have so much respect for Paralympic sport.”
Bassett laid low for a while, working in corporate America as a marketer in an Orange County-based medical device company.
But, in 2015, she couldn’t hold back her tenacity for the track any longer.
Wanting to become a Paralympian, Bassett moved to San Diego, where she lived out of her car and on friends’ couches for nearly five months so she could afford to train full-time.
Almost on cue, she started breaking national records in the T42 classification, and with that, Citi and Nike jumped at the chance to sponsor her and allow her to move out of her car.
Bassett qualified for the 2016 Rio Games nearly a decade after taking up the sport.
She left her first Games, though, with a sour taste in her mouth, finishing fifth in the 100-meter and 10th in the long jump.
But this time, unlike previous times, she told friends and family she would come back.
“Nobody trains to finish in fifth place, off the podium,” Bassett said. “But every year, I’ve gotten better and better. A lot of times we see these stories of people almost having overnight success, coming out of nowhere and showing up at the Paralympic Games and winning a medal. And that’s phenomenal. But I also want young kids to know that it’s hard, and it can take years before you get to that level. I was almost 27 years old when I made my very first Paralympic team.
“A lot of times it doesn’t happen overnight, and for me that’s really been the reward of my journey, having to persevere deep within, to fight day after day, week after week and year after to year with the passion that I have.”
So now, here she is, unyielding as she embarks on her third Paralympic cycle, readying for a trip to nationals, likely followed by a trip to the world championships.
She won’t be running away from UCLA this time. She wants to be there. It’s where she first learned to persevere.
“For me, as important as it is to be a champion on the track, it’s more important to be a champion in life and an advocate for others,” Bassett said.
“A lot of people get an injury or get in a challenging situation and they see it as a death sentence and just stay there and wallow and not fight. I want people to know they don’t have to be perfect all the time, and that they can get through it and overcome it. There is light on the other side.
“That’s what I want people to know about my story and my journey.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.