UCLA junior Scout Bassett trekked past her dorm on the Hill
on a recent afternoon, wheeling her triathlon bike and carrying a bag full of
gear, including her two extra legs.
UCLA student Scout Bassett spent her childhood scrubbing floors in a Chinese orphanage wearing a homemade prosthetic leg kept on with belts and masking tape. "Then a miracle happened," she says. Now, she's a triathlete. Photos by Alison Hewitt.
The one-legged triathlete was wearing her walking leg while
hauling her biking and running legs on her way to meet a TV news crew, who were
eager to film her in action a week before her next race. Living at the
farthest, highest part of the Hill from campus makes her trek a little harder,
but it's no big deal, Bassett said.
"I remember thinking when I moved here, 'I'm at the
summit? Right at the very top?' It can be exhausting. But really, by week two,
you're used to it," she said, unwittingly echoing generations of students.
"It's a very hilly campus, and I think it would be hard for someone in a
wheel chair. I'm lucky that I'm an amputee and have such independence."
Incredibly positive comments like that one flowed from
Bassett all afternoon, whether the local Fox 11 news crew was nearby or not. Five
minutes into the shoot, everyone was in awe of the petite, 4-foot, 8-inch 21-year-old
who could run circles around all of the onlookers.
"You're amazing. I could never do a triathlon," said
the producer, a young woman.
"You could totally do a triathlon," Bassett
insisted, and offered tips. But Bassett's optimism is hard-won, earned after
she was rescued from a heart-breakingly difficult childhood.
Bassett's success story starts like a rags-to-riches fairy
tale. For the first seven years of her life, she was in a government orphanage
in Nanjing, China, doing chores like Cinderella before the ball: mopping
floors, washing dishes and caring for the younger children. She doesn't
remember ever going outside and had no hopes for a better future.
She has some idea about how she lost her right leg – she
knows she was abandoned in 1989 as a 1-year-old at the orphanage, badly burned
from what appeared to be a chemical fire that scarred her skin and claimed her
right leg up to mid-thigh. At the orphanage, adults made her a rudimentary
prosthetic leg out of leather belts and masking tape – "things you'd find
in your garage," Bassett recalled.
There was not always enough food, and Scout now believes
that the strict discipline and poor conditions were more a result of the
culture and scarce resources than maliciousness, but she recalls it as the
worst seven years of her life. "There was illegal child labor, physical
abuse and starvation," she said grimly. "It was really brutal. Then a
In some ways, her life didn't really start until she was
adopted, Bassett said. But at the same time – and here again is her ability to
find the good side of anything – she credits the orphanage for making her
Bassett swims prosthetic-free, and rarely less than a half-mile (more than 30 laps) at a time.
"Without those experiences, I don’t know that I would
have the strength I have today," Bassett mused. "It also makes me
very appreciative of what I have now."
She spends 12-15 hours each week training for the dozen or
so races she competes in each year. She often swims half a mile (32 laps in a 25-meter pool) before class at
the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center on the Hill, and runs and bikes whenever
she can, on campus and off. She puts herself through a mini-triathlon almost
every weekend: a half-mile swim, a 12-mile bike ride and a 3-to-4-mile run. She's won silver two years in a row in her division of the ITU World Triathlon Championships. Her
next race is the Nautica Malibu
Triathlon on Sunday, Sept. 13: a half-mile ocean swim, an 18-mile bike ride
and a 4-mile run on Zuma Beach.
"At the beginning of every race, I say, 'Argh, why am I
doing this to myself?' But by the end I can't wait for the next one,"
Bassett said. "I really have a great time while I'm out there."
In a demonstration of athletic prowess at the TV crew's
request, she pulls her walking leg off her right thigh and literally hops into
the pool to swim a few laps of freestyle at Sunset Canyon. Minutes later, the
leg is back on – she pulls a protective sheath on the end of her thigh, slips
the prosthetic over it and seals it to her leg with a tight sleeve – and she leads
the way farther up the Hill for a biking demo.
Bassett, wearing her walking leg, prepares to switch to her biking leg.
She swaps out her walking leg for her cycling leg, which is
specially designed to lock onto her bike pedal. She takes a few passes on the
road and walkways in front of Hedrick Hall before it's time for another leg
exchange. Off with the bike leg, on with the springy running leg. Competing in
triathlons can be an expensive sport, and all the more so when two components
of the race call for two separate prosthetic legs, at a price of about $30,000
each, Bassett explained.
Athletes Foundation has really made it possible for me to compete,"
she said. Bassett met athletes from CAF six years ago and was inspired to begin
racing. It was another step in her long journey from China and through a few trying pre-teen years in Michigan.
From Nanjing, China
to Michigan, U.S.A.
Her adoptive parents, Joe and Susi Bassett, came to the
orphanage from Michigan when Scout was 6, to adopt a baby they had been approved for. But on a tour of the orphanage, fate intervened. Joe spotted
a little boy, about Scout's age, and Susi spotted Scout, and the couple knew
they wanted all three children, as Susi recalls in this video made by CAF,
using remarkable home-video footage the Bassetts' took in the orphanage. Within
a year, the childless Bassetts became a bustling family of five.
Scout, the powerhouse who now competes in a dozen triathlons
annually, remembers feeling helpless and terrified when she and her soon-to-be
brother were adopted.
Bassett now spends 12-15 hours a week exercising. Here, she jogs past her gear on campus.
"We had a lot of prospective parents visit the
orphanage, but I never understood that they were there to pick out a
child," she said. "I think because I was never being chosen. So when
my parents came – people think, 'you must have been so thrilled, it's every
orphan's dream' – but I didn't understand. I didn't know what parents or family
meant. I'd never even seen a picture of a non-Asian person. I'd never been
outside. No one at the orphanage explained what was happening, or that we were
leaving for good. I was terrified."
Life improved quickly as her 7-year-old brain soaked up the
English language like a sponge, and she and her brother realized that they
would never have to go back to the orphanage. She received the medical
treatment she had never received at the orphanage, and soon, her parents
outfitted her with a proper prothesis. But it wasn't a revelation.
"It was definitely a learning process," Bassett
said. "It just felt weird. And I had to use so many new muscles."
Junior high was as awkward for Bassett as for any other tween.
She thought of herself as an athletic girl, but while she was allowed to
practice with the school teams, she was rarely if ever allowed to play in the
games. Then, in 2003 when she was about 14, she met people involved in
the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
Ready to compete
CAF gave Bassett a grant to train to compete in track and
field, and though her high school lacked a track team, she began running on her
own and joined the school's golf and tennis teams. Her prosthetist designed a
running leg for her and helped her develop the right movement and stride.
Bassett will bike 18 miles in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon, in between a half-mile ocean swim and a 4-mile run.
In 2006, her family moved to Palm Springs, Calif., and by
2007 she had a coach to help her follow in the footsteps of her CAF mentors and
became fully committed to triathlons.
"Before 2007, I knew how to run decently well, but I
didn't yet know how to swim or bike," Bassett said. "It was a little
scary learning to bike! But I didn't want to be intimidated. I live very
passionately, and when I find something I love, I do it."
Coincidentally, her first triathlon was at UCLA in 2007,
before she even knew she would be coming to school here that very fall. Now,
she's mulling whether to take on an Iron Man competition like some of her CAF
friends, and whether she could compete in the Paralympics if triathlons become
an event in 2012 or 2016.
"Triathlons are one of the few sports where challenged
athletes compete with normal athletes," Bassett said. "People at
these events are always really encouraging, and sometimes I get comments like,
'I can't believe you're beating me, and you only have one leg!'"
Other athletes seem to gain strength from seeing her
compete, telling her, "I see you doing this, and I know that means I can
do it, too," she said. She's sure to provide encouragement back, but don't
call her an inspiration.
"I hope people seeing me feel empowered," Bassett
said. "I hope I'm empowering people more than I'm inspiring them."
Bassett jogs past the cameraman filming her for a news story.