She spent most of her first seven years of life in a Chinese government-run orphanage. At 18 months old, her birth parents abandoned her on the side of the road after Bassett had lost her right leg in a chemical fire. She wasn’t adopted by her American parents until she was nearly eight years old.
“It wasn’t the aspect of being naked—that’s obviously a vulnerable and bold thing, but for me it was more showing all of my burns that my running shorts usually cover,” Bassett said, during a phone interview with Women’s Running. “Knowing that with that, I’d have to be really honest and authentic about my story and all that comes with the accident and losing my leg and being adopted.”
When Bassett, now 31, arrived in the U.S., she grew up in Spring Harbor, a small northern Michigan town where a petite Chinese girl with a prosthetic leg didn’t fit the mold—she had a difficult time adjusting.
“Growing up I did not have people who looked like me, who I saw in magazines or media or television. Men go to war and lose a leg and they put on a prosthetic and they’re celebrated as a hero, but we look at women and we don’t think of them in the same way we portray men,” Bassett said. “I hope that some young woman sees this, who is struggling with her identity and acceptance. That was really hard for me to convince myself when I was younger that I was not going to be ashamed or embarrassed.”
It wasn’t until Bassett was 14 that she reluctantly tried running. Little did she know, it would turn out to be the one thing that set her free—most recently it took her to Peru for the Parapan American Games, where she took the gold medal in the long jump. In 2017, she was the bronze medalist in the world championships 100-meters and long jump.
“Running is the one place I found my peace and my power,” she said. “It’s so important that running in particular can show us what is possible: the places you can see, things you can overcome, what you can achieve if you stick with it. It’s not an overnight success story—I’ve had more losses and failures than wins, but I’m so proud of the fight of my team, who has been on this ride with me.”
And although Bassett’s notoriety rests on the track, she’s also taken a shot at the marathon three times. In her quest to make the 2020 Paralympic team going to the Tokyo Games, she’ll continue to focus on the 100 meters and long jump, but Bassett isn’t opposed to going back to the roads after that. She switched prosthetic manufacturers this year, which has presented her with another adjustment in training. Because she’s 4 feet, 9 inches tall, fitting her prosthetic correctly takes time—the right size and shape takes fine-tuning. It’s also expensive, about $30,000–$40,000, according to ESPN.
“I also have had to adjust my technique and training because of it,” Bassett said. “I don’t think people realize how hard it is for people like me to even get to the track. It’s not like most athletes, where you just go get a pair of running shoes and maybe buy an outfit and you’re out the door to run. It’s much more costly—we’ve started over this year. But my new blade is incredible.”
As she also heads to the 2019 world championships in Doha this fall, where she faces what she describes as “very stiff competition,” Bassett is also hoping her newfound exposure in the Body Issue will also draw attention to the gender disparity in Paralympic track and field, where not nearly as many women compete as men. Because of the lack of female athletes, track and field does not offer as many competitive opportunities for women, Bassett said.
“We’re not a culture that is telling young girls that wearing a running prosthetic or being in racing chair is cool and amazing and powerful,” she said. “The layers and barriers to go through to acceptance in putting on a piece of adaptive equipment that isn’t necessarily itself beautiful, it’s challenging to convince young women who don’t want to stand out.”
Bassett’s message to those girls is personal.
“You gotta be stronger than that. You can’t focus on what people are saying or how they look at you, but how you feel being able to do something with this piece of equipment,” she said. “That’s what carried me—the feeling I got while running far surpassed the bullying or how it looked. It made me feel whole. I could run away from all of that.”