While Title IX, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Thursday, has increased opportunities in women’s sports, gaining access to those opportunities has been more difficult for women with disabilities.
U.S. Paralympian Scout Bassett, a two-time world championship medalist in track and field, knows exactly what it’s like to come up against those obstacles first-hand.
“Growing up, I was always on able-bodied sport programs and teams, but I was the girl that the coaches said, ‘You can sit over on the bench; you can be on the sidelines.’ And when it came to actual games or tournaments, I didn’t get to play, but everybody else did,” says the 33-year-old Bassett.
“And it was quite obvious that I was not going to be treated or viewed like everybody else. And so, I grew up thinking that people with disabilities were lesser than didn’t belong.”
But that didn’t deter Bassett, who attended UCLA from 2007-11 on an academic scholarship and expected to be able to continue her training as a triathlete. She looked to join the school’s triathlon club her freshman year, but found herself mostly training by herself before being contacted by the U.S. Paralympic track & field team.
After graduation in 2011, Bassett worked for a prosthetics company for nearly four years before quitting to focus full time on training. With a budget of just $25 a week for food, Bassett slept in her 1992 Toyota Corolla near the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Chula Vista, occasionally crashing on a friend’s couch. This continued for nearly five months until she was offered sponsorships and could afford her own place.
The next year, she made the U.S. Paralympic Team for the 2016 Rio Games , finishing fifth in the 100 meters and 10th in the long jump. At the 2017 World Championships, Bassett earned bronze medals in both the 100m and long jump.
She eventually moved on from Chula Vista and found a home at San Diego State University, where she’s coached by two-time Olympian Sheila Burrell. Under the former heptathlete Burrell, who’s in her 13th season as the head cross country/track and field coach at SDSU, Bassett has found a training model that could provide a path forward for more para athletes in the future.
“I do things a little bit differently,” said Bassett, who was born in Nanjing, China, and was abandoned as an infant after losing her right leg in a chemical fire. She spent the first seven years of her life doing household chores in a government-run orphanage before being adopted by a Michigan couple, Joe and Susan Bassett, in 1995.
“But the foundation of what it takes to be a really good sprinter is the same, whether you’re an able body athlete or you’re a para athlete.”
Burrell admits she was skeptical at first of coaching Bassett, but she quickly found that training the ambitious Paralympian brought unforeseen benefits.
“I think that the time that I’ve spent coaching Scout, and with my team here at San Diego State, has been mutually beneficial for her and for them,” said Burrell, who invites Bassett to join in team activities and events, although their actual training remains separate.
“I do think there’s a model where a lot of these programs could accept a few athletes as part of their able body program,” muses Bassett. “…That human experience, that human feeling that we all want to be accepted, to feel like we belong, is something that people with disabilities are largely stripped of.
“And so, to be able to have programs in this country where a young girl can come to college, compete and feel like she’s accepted, she’s welcome, she’s included, is extremely important. Not only for her as an athlete, but who she’s going become later on in her life.”
The NBC Sports research team contributed to this report.