This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Amputee triathlete's Cinderella story

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UCLA junior Scout Bassett spent her childhood scrubbing floors in a Chinese orphanage wearing a homemade prosthetic leg kept on with belts and masking tape. Now, she's a triathlete. Photos by Alison Hewitt.
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.
UCLA junior Scout Bassett trekked past her dorm on the Hillon a recent afternoon, wheeling her triathlon bike and carrying a bag full ofgear, including her two extra legs.

The one-legged triathlete was wearing her walking leg whilehauling her biking and running legs on her way to meet a TV news crew, who wereeager to film her in action a week before her next race. Living at thefarthest, highest part of the Hill from campus makes her trek a little harder,but it's no big deal, Bassett said.

Scout Bassett."I remember thinking when I moved here, 'I'm at thesummit? 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 awheel chair. I'm lucky that I'm an amputee and have such independence."

Incredibly positive comments like that one flowed fromBassett all afternoon, whether the local Fox 11 news crew was nearby or not. Fiveminutes into the shoot, everyone was in awe of the petite, 4-foot, 8-inch 21-year-oldwho could run circles around all of the onlookers.

"You're amazing. I could never do a triathlon," saidthe producer, a young woman.

"You could totally do a triathlon," Bassettinsisted, and offered tips. But Bassett's optimism is hard-won, earned aftershe was rescued from a heart-breakingly difficult childhood.

The orphanage

Bassett's success story starts like a rags-to-riches fairytale. For the first seven years of her life, she was in a government orphanagein Nanjing, China, doing chores like Cinderella before the ball: moppingfloors, washing dishes and caring for the younger children. She doesn'tremember ever going outside and had no hopes for a better future.

She has some idea about how she lost her right leg – sheknows she was abandoned in 1989 as a 1-year-old at the orphanage, badly burnedfrom what appeared to be a chemical fire that scarred her skin and claimed herright leg up to mid-thigh. At the orphanage, adults made her a rudimentaryprosthetic leg out of leather belts and masking tape – "things you'd findin your garage," Bassett recalled.

There was not always enough food, and Scout now believesthat the strict discipline and poor conditions were more a result of theculture and scarce resources than maliciousness, but she recalls it as theworst seven years of her life. "There was illegal child labor, physicalabuse and starvation," she said grimly. "It was really brutal. Then amiracle happened."

Strength

Scout Bassett swims prosthetic-free, and rarely less than a half-mile at a time.
Bassett swims prosthetic-free, and rarely less than a half-mile (more than 30 laps) at a time.
In some ways, her life didn't really start until she wasadopted, Bassett said. But at the same time – and here again is her ability tofind the good side of anything – she credits the orphanage for making hertougher.

"Without those experiences, I don’t know that I wouldhave the strength I have today," Bassett mused. "It also makes mevery appreciative of what I have now."

She spends 12-15 hours each week training for the dozen orso races she competes in each year. She often swims half a mile (32 laps in a 25-meter pool) before class atthe Sunset Canyon Recreation Center on the Hill, and runs and bikes whenevershe can, on campus and off. She puts herself through a mini-triathlon almostevery 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. Hernext race is the Nautica MalibuTriathlon on Sunday, Sept. 13: a half-mile ocean swim, an 18-mile bike rideand a 4-mile run on Zuma Beach.

"At the beginning of every race, I say, 'Argh, why am Idoing 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."

Scout Basset, wearing her walking leg, prepares to switch to her biking leg.
Bassett, wearing her walking leg, prepares to switch to her biking leg.
In a demonstration of athletic prowess at the TV crew'srequest, she pulls her walking leg off her right thigh and literally hops intothe pool to swim a few laps of freestyle at Sunset Canyon. Minutes later, theleg is back on – she pulls a protective sheath on the end of her thigh, slipsthe prosthetic over it and seals it to her leg with a tight sleeve – and she leadsthe way farther up the Hill for a biking demo.

She swaps out her walking leg for her cycling leg, which isspecially designed to lock onto her bike pedal. She takes a few passes on theroad and walkways in front of Hedrick Hall before it's time for another legexchange. Off with the bike leg, on with the springy running leg. Competing intriathlons can be an expensive sport, and all the more so when two componentsof the race call for two separate prosthetic legs, at a price of about $30,000each, Bassett explained.

"The ChallengedAthletes Foundation has really made it possible for me to compete,"she said. Bassett met athletes from CAF six years ago and was inspired to beginracing. It was another step in her long journey from China and through a few trying pre-teen years in Michigan.

From Nanjing, Chinato Michigan, U.S.A.

Her adoptive parents, Joe and Susi Bassett, came to theorphanage 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 spotteda little boy, about Scout's age, and Susi spotted Scout, and the couple knewthey wanted all three children, as Susi recalls in this video made by CAF,using remarkable home-video footage the Bassetts' took in the orphanage. Withina year, the childless Bassetts became a bustling family of five.

Scout Bassett now spends 12-15 hours a week exercising. Here, she jogs past her gear on campus.
Bassett now spends 12-15 hours a week exercising. Here, she jogs past her gear on campus.
Scout, the powerhouse who now competes in a dozen triathlonsannually, remembers feeling helpless and terrified when she and her soon-to-bebrother were adopted.

"We had a lot of prospective parents visit theorphanage, but I never understood that they were there to pick out achild," she said. "I think because I was never being chosen. So whenmy parents came – people think, 'you must have been so thrilled, it's everyorphan's dream' – but I didn't understand. I didn't know what parents or familymeant. I'd never even seen a picture of a non-Asian person. I'd never beenoutside. No one at the orphanage explained what was happening, or that we wereleaving for good. I was terrified."

Life improved quickly as her 7-year-old brain soaked up theEnglish language like a sponge, and she and her brother realized that theywould never have to go back to the orphanage. She received the medicaltreatment she had never received at the orphanage, and soon, her parentsoutfitted her with a proper prothesis. But it wasn't a revelation.

"It was definitely a learning process," Bassettsaid. "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 topractice with the school teams, she was rarely if ever allowed to play in thegames. Then, in 2003 when she was about 14, she met people involved inthe Challenged Athletes Foundation.

Ready to compete

Scout Bassett will bike 18 miles in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon, in between a half-mile ocean swim and a 4-mile run.
Bassett will bike 18 miles in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon, in between a half-mile ocean swim and a 4-mile run.
CAF gave Bassett a grant to train to compete in track andfield, and though her high school lacked a track team, she began running on herown and joined the school's golf and tennis teams. Her prosthetist designed arunning leg for her and helped her develop the right movement and stride.

In 2006, her family moved to Palm Springs, Calif., and by2007 she had a coach to help her follow in the footsteps of her CAF mentors andbecame fully committed to triathlons.

"Before 2007, I knew how to run decently well, but Ididn't yet know how to swim or bike," Bassett said. "It was a littlescary learning to bike! But I didn't want to be intimidated. I live verypassionately, 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 CAFfriends, and whether she could compete in the Paralympics if triathlons becomean event in 2012 or 2016.

"Triathlons are one of the few sports where challengedathletes compete with normal athletes," Bassett said. "People atthese 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 hercompete, telling her, "I see you doing this, and I know that means I cando it, too," she said. She's sure to provide encouragement back, but don'tcall her an inspiration.

"I hope people seeing me feel empowered," Bassettsaid. "I hope I'm empowering people more than I'm inspiring them."

Scout Bassett jogs past the cameraman filming her for a news story.
Bassett jogs past the cameraman filming her for a news story.

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