Kids often ask Scout Bassett, of Palm Desert, California, if she wishes she had two normal legs. Bassett, 18, answers, “No. I have never known anything different, and it would seem weird to me.
What she means is she has learned important lessons about overcoming big challenges to reach your goals. “When you are missing a leg, it teaches you to appreciate little things—like being able to walk and run," she says.
Scout has faced big challenges. Born in China, she was left at an orphanage before her first birthday suffering from terrible burns. Her right leg was especially damaged, and doctors amputated it above the knee.
She remembers being hungry all the time at the orphanage. As soon as she was old enough to get around, she was put to work mopping floors, feeding babies, and washing dishes.
And she had to do all that with an artificial leg that didn't work very well. “It was made of things you'd find in your garage," she recalls. “Belt straps, masking tape, nuts and bolts. It didn't feel very good, and clanked, and even fell off sometimes."
Then, when she was seven years old, a family in Michigan adopted her. Everything about her new life in the United States was better, including the improved artificial legs her parents got for her.
First she got a better leg for everyday activities. It was okay for some things, but she still couldn't play soccer or basketball.
When she was 14, she got a high-tech leg made for sports and put it to the test right away in a race for disabled athletes. “I remember being terrified because this was my first time," she says. “But my doctor said, ‘You have to start somewhere.'"
Scout was waiting nervously for the race to start when athlete Sarah Reinertsen came up and said, “I've been doing this for a while. Let me give you some tips."
Reinertsen, who lost her leg when she was seven, is the first woman amputee to finish the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii. In the 2005 race, she swam 2.4 miles (3.9 kilometers) in the ocean, biked 112 miles (180 kilometers), and ran 26 miles (42 kilometers). She works with an organization called the Challenged Athletes Foundation to help support people like Scout.
Reinertsen's encouragement changed the teenager's life. She lost that first race, but gained the confidence that she needed to compete. If Sarah could do it, she could too.
Training hard, she improved her strength and skill step by step. She even took up golf and tennis, and by high school, she'd gotten good enough to be on the varsity teams.
Now living in California, Scout runs competitively and also finds time to share her story with school groups.
“There are days when I study until 1 a.m. and get up at five to swim and train, and it is tough," she explains. But she has a motto that keeps her going: “The task ahead of you is never greater than the strength inside you."
“Sometimes people look at someone like me or at Sarah and think they have nothing in common with us. I tell them that even if you aren't physically challenged, everybody has challenges of some kind—maybe with family, or homework, or friends."
“No matter what it is, you can overcome that obstacle," she says. “Everything you need is inside your heart. Take small steps. As time goes by, the steps will get bigger and you will reach your dream."
UPDATE ON SCOUT
Then in 1994, while touring the orphanage, Susi and Joe Bassett, of Harbor Springs, Michigan, saw a 6-year-old girl with soft brown eyes and a pixie cut, weighing only 22lbs and thought, "She needs me."
When Scout was 12, she joined her junior high school's basketball, soccer, and softball teams. She quickly learned that she was welcome to practice but she wasn't always welcome to compete. "Sports magnified my disability and shaped how I saw myself -- my teammates and coaches didn't think I was good enough to play. Out of bitterness and anger, I wanted to prove them wrong," said Bassett.
During her senior year of high school, the Bassett family relocated to Southern California and Scout connected with the Challenged Athletes Foundation. She attended their running clinics and started working as a mentor with young amputees. Then CAF suggested Scout compete in its annual San Diego Triathlon Challenge (a 1-mile swim, 40-mile bike and 10-mile run), offering her a training grant to learn how to swim and ride a bike. "That's really when I got serious about running -- and biking and swimming," Bassett recalled. Since then she has qualified and competed in several races throughout the world and earned a full scholarship to attend and recently graduate from UCLA.
Her short-term competition goal is to qualify for Paralympic Track and Field Trials in Miramar, FL in mid-June 2012 and hopefully make it to the London Games. Long-term, she plans to stay competitive in track and/or triathlons. "I also plan to build a professional career in marketing and business and then apply to graduate school down the road," said Bassett.
"My mission is to make equipment more accessible," she said of the prosthetics with titanium knees and carbon-fiber feet, which weigh 4.5 to 5 pounds each. "Maybe if we increased access to these legs, we could get amputees more fit and motivate them to participate in athletics."
Among her options:
Sprint Leg: L-shaped, stiffer and more aggressive than her long-distance leg. The knee kicks out faster, for a swifter return. (Like the ones Oscar Pistorius wears.)
Cross country Leg: C-shaped to allow for more compression, promoting a smoother, more natural running motion.
Bike Leg: With no shoe or foot, this leg clips right into the bike pedal.
Walking Leg: At barely 4 pounds, it's lighter than her athletic legs and has a foot shell on the end, allowing Bassett to wear a shoe.