Get Inspired All Over Again by These U.S. Paralympians Going for Gold in Tokyo

From swimming to javelin, wheelchair rugby to sitting volleyball, meet 22 American athletes competing at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics who give new meaning to grit, strength and determination.

By Natalie Finn Aug 24, 2021 7:00 PMTags
Melissa Stockwell, Scout Bassett, Isaac Jean-Paul, Chuck Aoki, ParalympianGetty Images

What's even more inspiring than thousands of athletes training hard, staying the course and overcoming unfathomable obstacles to live out their dreams of competing in the Olympics, which for most is their sport's biggest stage, against their fellow best in the world?

Well, get ready for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Two weeks after one flame was extinguished to mark the end of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad, the torch has been passed to the more than 4,500 men and women from 163 delegations who've descended on the Japanese capital to transcend the physical challenges that once may have been considered setbacks, but which have long since been turned into pure fuel for their competitive fires.

"So often, the few times that I saw a woman with a disability featured, it was almost to tokenize her, and not truly celebrating her greatness," Scout Bassett, a world champion in the 100 meters and long jump who lost her right leg in a chemical fire when she was an infant, told InStyle in a recent interview. "The disability was always a weakness or the deficiency, instead of that being her power, her strength, her beauty."

2020 Tokyo Olympics Closing Ceremony

Needless to say, Bassett is out there reshaping the perception of not just what it is to live with a disability, but to thrive and exceed every expectation, including her own. To take it and—literally, in her case—run with it.

Watch: 2020 Tokyo Olympics Closing Ceremony: Must-See Moments

"At the end of the day, I know that I have not done my job and lived in my purpose if I'm not helping to lift others up along the way," she said. "Seeing other young girls whose experience and journey I've been a part of competing with me and living their dream, that's what it's all about. That's what matters. That's what I want my legacy to be."

There are more than a few athletes in Tokyo right now who can relate.

With the Games getting underway Aug. 24 and lasting through Sept. 5, get to know these 22 members of the U.S. Paralympic Team and be prepared: Your heart's going to get a workout.

Chuck Aoki, Wheelchair Rugby

The 30-year-old from Minneapolis has a genetic condition called hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathies type II, which caused him to lose feeing in his body below his knees and elbows—but which didn't stop him from playing wheelchair basketball for 11 years. After seeing the hit 2005 documentary Murderball, he was inspired to try wheelchair rugby and in 2010 he won world championship gold with the U.S. team. In 2011 he was named U.S. Quad Rugby Association's Athlete of the Year.

"I'm trending in the right direction," Aoki said on NBC Sports' Inside the Village podcast of his team's prospects for gold in Tokyo after wining bronze in London in 2012 and then silver in Rio in 2016. "We feel like we're in a position to go get the job done."

Making the journey even sweeter, he and triathlete Melissa Stockwell were chosen to carry the flag during the Opening Ceremony.

Justin Phongsavanh, Javelin

The 6-foot-1 Iowa native was an 18-year-old multisport high school athlete who had never heard of the Paralympic Games when he was shot in the parking lot of a McDonald's in 2015. A bullet lodged in his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. But his heart was too big to quit on himself or sports and, after spending four months in the hospital, he sought out information from Adaptive Sports of Iowa to see how he could get back into the game. He discovered the javelin throw, and Adaptive Sports and the Challenged Athletes Foundation equipped him with an elite-level throwing chair.

Phongsavanh's medal count includes gold from the 2017 U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships, but Tokyo 2020 marks the 24-year-old's Paralympics debut in the F54 category (wheelchair athletes with spinal cord injuries).

As for the split second that changed his life forever, he reflected to last year, "I think the biggest bounce-back in response to it is just living—and living in a healthy, happy, positive manner. That's what I do every day."

Daniel Romanchuk, Track & Field

The Maryland native is the world record holder in the 800- and 5,000-meter races—and the American record holder in all Paralympic distances. He secured his second straight trip to the Paralympics when he won the Chicago Marathon in 2019, a year that also saw him earning gold in the 800 meters and 1,500 meters at the World Championships, as well as crossing the finishing line first at the Boston Marathon.

Born with myelomeningoceole spina bifida, Romanchuk's life has been all about sports and his faith from as far back as he can remember thanks to his parents, who got him involved in swimming and various wheelchair sports at an early age.

"The one thing I've learned in life is don't try to make too much of a plan or hold too tightly to it—God's plan may be very different, everything could change tomorrow," he told Assemblies of God in 2019.

The publication caught up with him (no small feat) this summer as he prepared for Tokyo and reflected on what it was like putting his usual training regimen on pause during the pandemic last year. "Weight training became a little bit interesting," the 23-year-old shared. "I had to use a 50-pound bag of wheat and five-gallon water jugs as weights until the equipment I ordered could be sent."

Romanchuk also spends a lot of time speaking at schools, spreading the gospel of never giving up. "Showing kids with or without disabilities that there is hope, that you don't have to conform to this world's labels, is my goal," he said. "I want to show them what's possible—that there is hope in what sometimes seems like a very hopeless situation."

Tatyana McFadden, Track & Field

Tokyo 2020 marks the wheelchair racer's sixth Paralympic Games—and the only thing that might slow her down at this point would be if she tried to wear all of her 17 medals, seven of 'em gold, at once.

She began her Paralympics career in Athens in 2004 when she was 15, earning a silver in the 100m and bronze in the 200m. Fast-forward to Rio in 2016, where she won gold in the 400m, 800m, 1,500m and 5,000m, and grabbed silvers in the 100m and the marathon. (Her impressive career medal haul also includes a silver in the 1-kilometer sprint in skiing at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.)

Mind you, paralyzed from the waist down by spina bifida, she was left to walk on her hands until she was 6 years old while growing up in an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia. McFadden didn't receive her first wheelchair until she was adopted by her mom, Deborah, who brought her to the U.S.

McFadden kind of says it all in her Instagram bio: "In a wheelchair but who cares."

McKenzie Coan, Swimming

About to be a three-time Paralympian, the Rio gold medalist in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle and 400-meter freestyle is also an aspiring lawyer.

In fact, she was right in the middle of filling out her first law school application last September when she got word that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. Which only made Coan more determined, having always been inspired by Ginsburg's story of overcoming the adversity that came with simply being a woman trying to study and practice law in the 1950s.

"It's very surreal," the 4-foot-3 swimmer, whose brittle bone disease makes her prone to fractures, explained to "She would never want us to get down about it or stop trying or stop doing whatever it is that we're chasing and the change that we want to make."

And she's found more than a few parallels between Ginsberg's journey and her own. "A lot of people like to tell us what we can't do or what we shouldn't attempt to do," Coan said. "And they don't like it when we try to come in and change the landscape of things and change the things upon which our society is built."

Speaking of the pandemic that delayed every Paralympian's hopes and dreams for a year, she added, "I think that's kind of what 2020 is all about. Dealing with the setbacks and initiating the change that we so desperately need."

Nick Mayhugh, Track & Field

Actually a 7-a-side soccer specialist—he was the 2019 U.S. Soccer Player of the Year with a Disability—Mayhugh pivoted to sprinting in the spring of 2020 to secure a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team, training to compete in the 100m, 200m and 400m, T37 classification (athletes with coordination impairments).

When he first approached U.S. Paralympic Track & Field coach Joaquim Cruz about his prospects (7-a-side was dropped from the Paralympics program in 2020), Mayhugh recalled to, "He shot it straight and said, 'I often get a lot of athletes who think they can do both and take on the workload of two sports. What makes you different? What makes you want to do this? Do you know what it takes?'"

The athlete, who was a high school freshman when he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and told his soccer playing days were over, replied, "I know what type of person I am and the type of athlete I am. I know that if I commit to this then I can put 100 percent towards it and realistically get to Tokyo and hopefully bring a medal home."

Ten hours a day, six days a week later... He's the American record holder in the 200m and holds the world record in the 100m.

Elizabeth Marks, Swimming

Make that Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Marks. She was only 19, having enlisted in the U.S. Army at 17 in 2008, when she suffered hip injuries that required multiple surgeries while serving as a combat medic in Iraq. But while that closed one chapter of her military career, she was still determined to be of service. Marks discovered her swimming prowess when she was training to get back into fighting shape and became the Army's first-ever Paralympic swimmer when she competed in Rio in 2016, earning gold in the 100-meter breaststroke with a world record time and a bronze in the 4x100m medley relay. She was honored with the Pat Tillman Award at the 2016 ESPYs.

According to Stars and Stripes, the Army sent 17 soldiers—including active, National Guard and Reserve troops—to Tokyo for the Olympics and Paralympics this summer.

"The biggest gift that [competing] has given the ability to help other people who are ill, sick, injured or wounded in the military to find a different outlet and to share the healing power of adaptive sports," Marks told the publication.

Melissa Stockwell, Triathlon

The U.S. Army veteran lost her left leg in April 2004 when, a month into her deployment to Iraq, her vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb, making her the first female American soldier to lose a limb in active combat. She was awarded the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart—and four years later she became the first Iraq War vet to compete in the Paralympics, swimming in Beijing and serving as the United States' flagbearer in the Closing Ceremony.

She then decided to focus on the triathlon, enjoying the variety of activity, and she earned bronze in Rio as part of an American medal sweep in the event. The mother of two is also founder of Dare2Tri, which supports triathletes with disabilities.

Stockwell's picking up the flag once again in Tokyo, this time sharing the honor with Chuck Aoki in the Opening Ceremony, and the 41-year-old is just grateful to be there, less than two months removed from a bicycle crash in early July that left her with fractured L2 and L3 vertebrae and a bruised pelvis.

"I like to think I'm tough but man, trees hurt!" she quipped on Instagram in announcing her very temporary physical setback.

"Not much changes from the normal training," Stockwell told Forbes just weeks later. "We've been in sort of a hard block of training and have had a [Team USA] pre-camp, but the training doesn't taper down at all."

Psychologically, she had a bit more to shake off, admitting to Distractify this month, "It hasn't been easy. Mentally it was hard. For a few weeks it was so painful...I was literally sitting on the couch and my workout for the day was to just sit there and let myself heal." But no matter what happens in Tokyo, Stockwell was intent on seeing "this dream through to completion."

"I push myself and see what I can do," she said. "If that, in turn, inspires the next generation...that's just kind of the added bonus to all of it. The hope is that everyone realizes how much choice they have in their own life and the things that they're capable of doing and they get out there and see."

Allysa Seely, Track & Field

Seely was a nationally ranked triathlete competing for Arizona State before a 2010 diagnosis of Chiari II Malformation, basilar invagination and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which combined to affect her brain, spine and connective tissue. She was back in action seven weeks after surgery and in 2012 she earned bronze at the ITU Paratriathlon World Championships. The following year, however, her left leg was amputated below the knee—meaning only that she just had to try harder.

She won five gold medals on the ITU circuit in 2014 and was World Paratriathlon Champion in 2015, 2016 and 2018, stopping in Rio to earn her first Paralympic gold along the way.

In July 2020, the Tokyo Paralympics having been postponed for a year, Seely went to the emergency room with what turned out to be an infection in her bloodstream. She was in and out of the hospital for six months, during which she was diagnosed with endocarditis, inflammation of the inner layer of the heart, and developed a blood clot in her heart.

But there she was on Instagram Aug. 22, posing outside the Athletes Village in Japan.

"I'll go out there with a heart that wants this more than anything," Seely told USA Triathlon Magazine in June of defending her Paralympic title. "I can't say for sure I want it more than anybody else, but I want it pretty damn bad and I'm not going to hand it to somebody else without a fight."

Nicky Nieves, Sitting Volleyball

In case you did not know, the U.S. women are the defending Paralympic champions in sitting volleyball, and Nieves—who long ago shrugged off being born without a left hand—is definitely looking to make it two in a row.

"The seated game is played on a smaller court, so it requires quicker reaction time," the 5-foot-10 athlete, who starred on her Florida high school's traditional volleyball team and now is an assistant coach for the varsity squad, told the Osceola News-Gazette in July. "Playing that version has really helped me hone in on my IQ of the game. You have to learn how to place your hits and use the other side's blockers to your advantage."

It was "a weird and stressful year," she said of the time since the Games were postponed due to the pandemic, "but it's gone by quick. Last year was something nobody had a plan for. I really dedicated myself to training this year, to keeping in shape. Getting pushed back didn't mean there was nothing to do."

And Nieves, who since 2018 has also run the nonprofit Limitless People, ultimately came through with flying colors. Red, white and blue, to be exact.

"It's still surreal putting on those colors," she said. "It's a sign all the work I've done has not been in vain. I keep thinking of the small percentage of players and athletes who make it to this point."

Anastasia Pagonis, Swimming

At first glance, you wouldn't notice anything different about her at all—unless you happened to see her guide dog, Radar, hanging out poolside.

Now 17 and competing in her first Paralympics, Pagonis was 12 when she started to lose her vision. Happily, her doctor recommended swimming—and her generation demanded she be on TikTok. So, that's where she goes to give her close to 2 million followers insight into what it's really like to be blind, from how she puts on makeup (pretty deftly) to how she ended up swimming competitively after a really rough start. (At first she had some visual awareness despite being legally blind, but that deteriorated in 2018, and she basically had to learn to swim all over again.)

"I do this for that random little girl that's sitting out there scrolling through her phone and just listens to one of my videos and hopefully I can help her and change her life in some way," she told the Washington Post. "And I do it for myself. People are going to make fun of me. People are going to laugh at me. I might as well make fun of myself." 

Yes, she still gets trolled, because apparently there are people out there who troll blind girls. So her mom Stacey reads through the comments and blocks creeps who write nasty things.

"I don't have to be the stereotype of blindness," Pagonis said. "I can do my own makeup. I can be an influencer. I can be a professional athlete." And, she added,  she's "showing other people with disabilities, or people who are just different, that they can do it."

Hunter Woodhall, Track & Field

The Rio silver (200m) and bronze (400m) medalist was the first-ever double amputee to earn a Division I track and field scholarship—and he made University of Arkansas proud, being named a first-team All-American his freshman year.

Not that Woodhall's life was always just about being tall and handsome and fast and lucky in love (he's been in a relationship with Olympian Tara Davis since they met at a high school track meet in 2017). 

Home-schooled until the fifth grade, Woodhall soon found out that "kids can be mean," he shared with People recently. "I came in as the new kid, and then I came in as the new kid without legs." Born with a congenital defect called fibular hemimelia, ensuring his fibulae would never develop properly, his legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old.

The bullying never resulted in a big cinematic scene or a fight behind the gym. Rather, Woodhall said, "I just held it in, and dealt with it on my own." Ultimately, he concluded, "I think all the things that happen to us in life shape us for who we're going to be, especially the hard times."

Getting to go to Tokyo "means everything," he said. "I have so much pride competing for this country. And I think it gives us an ability to show who we are, show what we represent, which I hope in turn would reflect what we see this country to be."

Mallory Weggeman, Swimming

After a medal-less trip to Rio, Weggeman is looking to recapture the form that won her her first gold in the 50-meter freestyle in London in 2012.

Her two gold medals at the 2019 World Championships were a good sign. And if anyone can do it, it's the author of the 2021 book Limitless, who was a teenager when she was left paralyzed from the waist down while receiving an epidural shot for back pain she suffered following a bout with shingles in 2008.

"I spent every day online trying to figure out what it all meant," the 31-year-old recalled to People. "I couldn't look and see people that looked like me, showing me what a path forward could look like." A swimmer before that day, she eventually realized she was still perfectly herself in the pool. "I'm determined to use my energy to be a beacon for others," she said, "because I still remember how scared and alone I felt when I was 18."

Getting ready for her third Paralympics, she told Minnesota Public Radio in June, "I think at this stage of my career, every time I get behind those starting blocks, I just feel so grounded in that gratitude and in that understanding that every time I get behind those blocks, it is a gift. It really is. There's no guarantees that you get to get up and race tomorrow and see if you enjoy it while you have it. And I'm so fortunate for the community that has wrapped their arms around me and allowed me to chase this dream."

Beatriz Hatz

Being born without a fibula in her right leg, necessitating the amputation of her right leg below her knee, couldn't slow Hatz down—she had to keep up with her brothers, after all.

"My two younger brothers always did sports growing up. And because I'm so competitive, I did the sports they did," she told the Arvada Press in July. "That list of sports included softball, basketball, soccer, karate and skiing." But it turned out, she had a knack for track, and the 20-year-old from Colorado will be making her Paralympic debut in the long jump.

"I used to do softball, basketball, skiing, snowboarding, CrossFit and even karate before trying track," Hatz explained. "I only joined track because of a friend who made a bet with me my freshman year of who could make a varsity meet first. I was the first of my friend group to go to a varsity meet and since then, I stuck with it." 

Fermita Ayanbeku

The 29-year-old sprinter and founder of the nonprofit Limb-It-less Creations was 11 when her right leg was amputated below the knee following a car accident. 

Ayanbeku, who's one of seven siblings, didn't get involved in the Paralympic movement until 2015—and she made her debut in Rio the following year, finishing fourth in the 100m but earning bronze in the 200m. "I had just started running six months before them," she recalled to her hometown Boston Herald this month. "It was very overwhelming. I had just won nationals and these girls could run. It was very humbling."

Heading into Tokyo, she was training five days a week on the track and doing pilates on day six. And sometimes she rests.

Her advice to any kids who want to compete, whether they have a disability or not, is, she shared, "Just go after it. There's going to be hard days. I've had hard days. For the first year and a half I was kicking myself with my blade. I thought it was me, but the more you practice the better you get. Never giving up is a huge deal. There will be a lot of things that will make you want to give up, but if you push through them you will have a good time. "

Jonathan Gore

The 26-year-old from Fayetteville, W.Va., had Olympic aspirations from a young age, and when he graduated from Concord University in 2017 he was ready to show the world just how fast he was. But a grisly accident in 2018—a lawn mower cut off his left heel—left Gore with an unfathomable decision to make.

"I went to the hospital and they said they could reconstruct my foot again, but I would never be able to walk or function as normal," he recalled to WVVA-TV. So, "I told them to just cut it off." 

"It" being the rest of his left leg below the knee, but Gore had no time to look back. He was already sprinting forward.

"The ER, right before my surgery, he asked me if I had any questions," Gore said. "The first question was how much of my leg was he going to remove. The second question was if could I eat that day because I literally had not eaten that entire day. And the last question was after he does this, could get a running blade so I could train in the Paralympics."

Now the second-ranked American man with lower-leg amputations in the 100m and 200m, he's making his Paralympics debut.

Gore told West Virginia Public Radio before he headed to Tokyo, "It's amazing because you really don't hear of anybody from West Virginia doing something that big. My goal is just to trust my training and execute my race. And if I do that, then I can compete for a medal."

Isaac Jean-Paul

He didn't make the basketball team in college, so Jean-Paul pivoted to track and field, becoming a five-time All-American in the high jump for Lewis University, winning a national championship at the 2015 NCAA Division II Indoor Championships in 2015.

But the 28-year-old, who's been legally blind since birth ("I think I have an advantage in the high jump because I can't even see the bar," he quipped to in 2017), also excelled in the long jump, most recently taking silver at the World Para Athletic Championships in 2019. Those are the muscles he'll be flexing in his Paralympics debut in Tokyo.

"To have a disability isn't to feel sorry for yourself or to accept other people's pity," Jean-Paul, who's also the sprint coach for the adaptive athletics program at San Diego State University, wrote in an op-Ed for the San Diego Union Tribune. "To have a disability is to be strong, is to be brave, is to have confidence. To have a disability isn't to be disabled. It is to be able."

Deja Young, Track & Field

Nerve damage and limited mobility in her right shoulder caused by brachial plexus, a condition she was born with, couldn't slow her down. Young played volleyball and softball and lettered all four years in track in high school, then attended Wichita State on a track and field scholarship and was named All-Conference.

Heading into Tokyo, the 25-year-old Wichita, Ks., native is the defending Paralympic champion in the 100m and 200m—but all that gold (including four world championship medals) didn't come without a cost. Just two months before Rio, the pressure becoming unbearable and feeling as though it would be a weakness to ask for help, Young attempted to take her own life.

Now she advocates for mental health awareness, knowing she was lucky and hoping to empower others, and recognizes the importance of taking breaks.

"I would not check in on myself mentally as much as I do now," she reflected to in February. "When I would feel overwhelmed I'd just push through because I thought that's what I had to do. Now I think, 'Why am I pushing through this? Who are you doing this for?' Now I'm always checking in and asking myself, 'Hey, are you feeling OK? Feeling overwhelmed?' That's changed significantly."

Jessica Long, Swimming

One of the most decorated Paralympic athletes of all time with 23 medals, as well as 50 world championship medals, Tokyo will mark the swimmer's fifth Games, having made her debut in Athens at the age of 12.

"I thought I was 18," the now 29-year-old recently told Sports Illustrated of her big splash in Greece. She competed like it too, winning gold in the 400m freestyle, 100m freestyle and 34 pt. 4x100-meter freestyle. Yet the threat of burnout was real, and she considered retiring at 16 after adding four more Paralympic gold medals, a silver and a bronze to her collection in Beijing. She ultimately recommitted to the fun of swimming before London in 2012 (five golds, two silvers and a bronze) and Rio (a gold, three silvers and two bronze with two injured shoulders).

Born in Siberia with no fibulas, ankles or heels and missing most of the bones in her feet, she was adopted at 13 months old from a Russian orphanage and raised in Baltimore. At 18 months her legs were amputated below the knees so she could grow up mastering her custom prosthetics. 

"Everyone had legs. Even my younger sisters both had legs. It was hard to comprehend what I did wrong: Why me?" she recalled. "Then I found out about the Paralympics. It really did completely change my life. It gave me confidence. For the first time in my entire life, I felt like I wasn't alone."

Morgan Stickney, Swimming

As a nationally ranked 15-year-old in the 1,500m freestyle, Stickney hoped to swim in the Olympics one day.

"I was on my way to morning practice when I was just walking on the pool deck and all of a sudden, it felt like I was stepping on a sharp rock," the 24-year-old recalled to WRAL earlier this month about the day that marked the beginning of the end for her right foot. Even after surgery to remove the bone that had become inflamed, the pain never stopped, and she didn't like what prescription painkillers were doing to her brain when she was on the pre-med track in college.

"I would study 60 to 80 hours a week, and not even exaggerating, I would go take a test and forget everything because of the opioids," she explained. Meanwhile, "bones just kept dying and tissue, and they had no idea why, So I eventually ended up getting a really bad infection, and we had no other choice but to amputate the leg below the knee."

That was in 2018. Seventeen months later, her lower right leg had to come off too, the result of a rare vascular disease that softened her bones. But then Stickney got serious about the Paralympics, qualifying in the 100m and 400m freestyle in Tokyo. (And she still wants to be a pediatric oncologist.)

"When I'm in the water, people aren't like, 'Oh my gosh, that girl has no legs,'" she told WRAL. "I'm not Morgan the amputee. I'm just Morgan. It's my happy place and my home."

Oksana Masters, Road Cycling

Tokyo will make the dual-season athlete a five-time Paralympian. At 32, the Ukrainian-born, Louisville, Ky.-raised athlete is still seeking her first summer gold, and it's probably wise to never count out a woman who's survived what Masters has. She was born with weight-bearing bones missing in both legs, six toes on each foot, five webbed fingers on each hand and no thumbs, plus her left leg was six inches shorter than her right—birth defects from what was determined to be in utero radiation poisoning from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

After she was adopted, both of her legs were eventually amputated over the course of seven years—and not long after both were gone, she started rowing, earning her first Paralympic medal, a bronze, in London in 2012. She won two golds, in 1.1-kilometer cross-country and 5km cross-country skiing, in Pyeongchang in 2018, but her highest Paralympic finish, in road-cycling, was fourth in Rio. So she's hoping to make the podium in Tokyo, which she's dubbed "Operation Unfinished Business."

And in any case, she plans on being in Beijing for the 2022 Paralympics kicking off in February.

Scout Bassett

The UCLA graduate came from nothing in the truest sense of the word, having been abandoned as an infant in China, missing her lower left leg and severely burned from a chemical fire. She lived in an orphanage, fashioning her own prosthetic out of leather belts and masking tape, until she was adopted at 7 in 1995. Back in Michigan, her parents promptly had her fitted for a proper prosthetic limb.

When she was 14 she got her first running blade, and though she finished last in her first race, she knew she'd found her space.

"When I put on this running leg, suddenly the thing that really held me back was no longer holding me back," Bassett recalled to Self earlier this summer. "It just changed my whole thinking and how I felt about myself. It was from that moment that I really felt like I had some hope of the future."

Fast-forward to 2021 and the track and field star, who admittedly always felt as though she didn't belong while growing up, is headed to her second Paralympics and was featured prominently in Kim Kardashian's social media promos for SKIMS shapewear, the official loungewear provider of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympic Games.

But it took years for her confidence level to match up with the fierce determination she was exhibiting on the outside, and it's still a daily struggle. Visiting the orphanage where she lived during those first traumatic years of her life "was a great reminder for me that we all have a choice," Bassett told Self. "And that no matter what's happened to you, even if it wasn't your fault, you have a choice of what you're going to do with that and whether or not you want to stay parked there or you want to become whole and to heal."

One more bit of inspo for the road: For the first time, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee is paying out equal prize money to Paralympians: $37,500 for gold medals, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze.

Approximately $1.2 million was doled out retroactively for the 36 medals the U.S. team brought home from Pyeongchang three years ago as well.

Cyclist Oksana Masters, who earned five medals in South Korea and is headed to Tokyo, tweeted upon hearing the news in July, "As I was reading this tears literally were streaming down my face not only bc of the equal pay for @Paralympics medals to @USParalympics athlete but the value and worth of Para athletes finally viewed equal to @Olympics. This is absolutely LIFE changing @TeamUSA thank you."

And with that, let the Games begin!

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games kick off with coverage of the Opening Ceremony on Tuesday, Aug. 24, at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. All events will be streaming live on NBCOlympics.comand check your NBC, NBCSN and Olympics Channel listings for TV coverage.