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A Paralympic athlete shares lessons on defying the odds in new book 'Lucky Girl'


Growing up, Scout Bassett says that she felt like an outsider. Her earliest memories are from an orphanage in China, where she had to figure out how to live with a life-altering disability. After she was adopted by a family in the U.S., she felt lost until she found running. Scout Bassett is a Paralympic athlete, and now she has her own book. Here's NPR's Lakshmi Singh.

LAKSHMI SINGH, BYLINE: Scout Bassett's new book is called "Lucky Girl."


SINGH: But long before she ran in the 2016 Paralympic Games, the celebrated athlete says she never felt all that lucky. It was just the name she got.

SCOUT BASSETT: My Chinese name, Zhu Fuzhi, written in the characters - the Chinese characters - means lucky.

SINGH: Bassett says some people hear lucky and think it's ironic. When she was an infant in Nanjing, China, Bassett says she survived a fire. She also lost her right leg.

BASSETT: I was left on the streets of Nanjing and found at a year-and-a-half old with burns from my waist down and taken to the local government orphanage in Nanjing.

SINGH: You write about some horrific conditions there - forced labor, food shortages, unsanitary conditions. We're fascinated by one story. You found a friend there, another girl, named Hope.

BASSETT: Yes. We gave her the name Hope in the book. That wasn't her actual Chinese name. But we called her that because she really was that for me. And in this orphanage, I was really the only person in the room with a physical disability, where I was immobile and didn't have a prosthetic until a little bit later on. But when I got there, I just got around by using my hands and my one leg to kind of just scoot across the floor. And we had trough-style bathrooms - so not actual toilets. There were several times that I fell. She would see, like, that I'd fall in, and she did her best every time. Like, we had this signal of when I needed to go, and she would just carry me to the bathroom and hold me. And when so much of your dignity is stripped, to be able to have somebody that gives you a little bit of that, for something as basic as using the restroom - she was just such an amazing, like, angel.

SINGH: Bassett remembers waking up one morning to discover that Hope was gone. She doesn't know what happened to her.

Well, you were adopted by a white family from the United States, and you moved to Michigan just before your eighth birthday. Is that correct?

BASSETT: Correct.

SINGH: So you write that you did not fit in there, and you felt homesick for China. Tell us more about that.

BASSETT: For context, when we lived in the orphanage, we didn't have access to the outside world. We couldn't even read. And as a result, if you've only lived in one place your entire life and you've never left the grounds of that place, and then you're just taken away, having all these new experiences that you can't even conceptualize, it's absolutely nauseating. It's traumatic, and it was jarring.

SINGH: Growing up in a small, rural town in northern Michigan, Bassett says she tried to hide her disability. But it was difficult with a conventional prosthesis.

BASSETT: It had a knee and had a foot, and we had a cosmetic cover over it to make it look like a anatomical limb.

SINGH: She was an active kid and she wanted freedom to move around. So she was introduced to something new.

BASSETT: I receive one of those carbon fiber, J-shaped running blades.

SINGH: Then came the moment of truth. Bassett was 14 years old, ready for her very first track race. And then...

BASSETT: I had this panic attack because I'm wearing these little shorts - running shorts - and a yellow sports bra. I realized, oh, wait a minute. I can't cover my running leg.

SINGH: You're essentially exposed.

BASSETT: Exposed. Yes.

SINGH: Totally exposed. And it's either own it (laughter) or...

BASSETT: Yes. Here I am at a track meet and realizing, oh, another thing that's going to be so obvious that I'm not like everybody else. And that's what was terrifying, was having to show the world who I really am and not to be able to hide it.

SINGH: I mean, things changed internally, right? I mean, something shifted.

BASSETT: Yes, because when I put on the leg, I was able to move faster than I ever had in my whole life. And so to wait that long to feel wind as you're moving was just incredible.

SINGH: Bassett fell in love with running. She says it helped to realize she no longer needed to hide her disability.


SINGH: And from this audio capture by The San Diego Union-Tribune, Bassett now seems to embrace the speed in practice and in competition. At the age of 35, the track and field athlete is a world championship medalist and the Americas record holder in the 200 meter in her class.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Scout Bassett for the USA - born in Nanjing, lives in San Diego.

SINGH: Here she is in the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio, wearing a bright-yellow headband and shades. Bassett takes her position on lane four next to several of her competitors, ready to give it all she's got for Team USA.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Away. Caironi out fairly out fairly - Bassett out fast, out wide. Silva began very quickly as well.

SINGH: In the moment, when you're on the starting line, and you're about to take off, what is that like?

BASSETT: It's almost like blacking out because the race happened so quickly, you really don't have a lot of time to form any thoughts. But for me, when I get in the blocks, I always have something before every race that I want to focus on, and I only have that one thought.

SINGH: I have to ask, the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games...


SINGH: ...Are just around the corner.


SINGH: What's next for you?

BASSETT: It is a full-court press, all-in for the trials at the end of July. I had a bit of a setback in the winter with personal medical things I had to deal with. And - but now we're good and excited for what's to come.

SINGH: Are you able to talk a little bit about what you encountered in the winter?

BASSETT: Yeah, I had - actually, on my residual limb, I had a tumor removed. Luckily it was benign. But again, lucky girl - that is bad luck to have something like that happen in the year of the Games. But I feel energized. Boy, we went through something major, and we're now running better than we were at this point last year. There is nothing that has happened in this life that is going to be able to derail me or take me out. And I'm really, really grateful for that.

SINGH: Scout Bassett is a professional runner. Her book is called "Lucky Girl." Scout, the best of luck moving forward in everything you do.

BASSETT: Thank you so much.

CHANG: This story is part of a series by Lakshmi Singh called The Sunshine Project. It's only available on the NPR app.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOLA YOUNG SONG, "CONCEITED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lakshmi Singh is a midday newscaster and a guest host for NPR, which she joined in 2000.