Victoria Arlen is no ordinary 22-year-old.
The ESPN features reporter and former Paralympic swimmer is set to compete on this season of Dancing with the Stars — just a year and a half after she regained the ability to walk after spending nearly a decade paralyzed from the waist down.
Arlen, who is paired with pro Val Chmerkovskiy, detailed her incredible story in a first-person essay for ESPN in May 2016. It began when Arlen, who was born in Boston and raised in Exeter, New Hampshire, got sick at age 11.
“My back and side ached, so doctors took out my appendix,” she recalled. “Then my legs began giving out. My foot dragged. Within two weeks, I lost all feeling and function in my legs. Next, my hands stopped working. I couldn’t control my arms, couldn’t swallow properly or find the right words when I wanted to speak. It was as if someone was slowly shutting down the switches on the circuit board that controlled my body and brain. I was slowly slipping away from my family.”
“Then everything went dark,” she continued. “Two years later, I woke up inside a body that could not move. I was locked in. I could hear the conversations going on around me, but I had no way of alerting anyone that I was aware they were there.”
It took three years for doctors to diagnose Arlen with two equally rare conditions: Transverse Myelitis and Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis, autoimmune disorders that caused swelling in her brain and spinal cord.
“I’ve since learned that, had my doctors diagnosed me correctly in 2006, a steroid injection could have prevented all of this,” she said. “But at the time of my diagnosis, they offered my family little hope. They told them I would be a vegetable for the rest of my life. I heard those conversations.”
Arlen lost the ability to speak, eat, walk and move. Doctors believed she had little chance of survival, let alone recovery — but her parents believed in her, setting up a hospital room in their house in New Hampshire to take care of her.
“My three brothers — I’m a triplet and we have an older brother — talked to me and kept me in the know about what was going on outside of my room,” said Arlen. “They empowered me to fight and get stronger. They didn’t know I could hear them, but I could.”
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Then, in December 2009, after four years in a vegetative state, Arlen made eye contact with her mom.
“Slowly over the next year, I began coming back to life,” she said. “Raw sounds became words, became sentences. A twitch of my index finger became the wave of my hand. The ability to swallow pudding eventually led to me mowing on a steak. I learned the name Justin Bieber, held my first cell phone and learned what it meant to ‘poke’ someone on Facebook.”
“But despite daily progress, one thing never returned: my legs,” she continued. “I was told the swelling had caused permanent damage to my spinal cord and I would be paralyzed from my belly button down for the rest of my life. Every specialist told me the same thing: ‘You need to get used to being in a wheelchair.’ I’d already overcome the impossible. I’d woken up and re-learned to live. My idea of what is possible had changed. When my doctors said I would never walk, I didn’t believe them. I knew I wasn’t meant to spend my life in a chair.”
Arlen, who had been a “water baby” growing up, began her journey toward regaining movement in her legs again in the pool.
“As I began to heal from my illness, I came to the sad realization that I would never swim again,” she recalled. “I didn’t think I could swim without my legs. But my brothers disagreed, so in 2010 they threw me into our pool. I was terrified. But it was a turning point in my life. It was the ‘jump’ I needed to get back to my life. When I was swimming, I was free from the chair. And to my surprise, I was still good. In the water, I found freedom — and my confidence.
In 2012, at age 17, Arlen made the USA Paralympic swim team and competed at the London Games, bringing home three silver medals and a gold in the 100-meter freestyle and setting a world record in the 100-meter free.
“When I returned home, I was met with quite a bit of fanfare,” she said. “All of a sudden, my chair and I were thrust into the spotlight. I was invited to speaking engagements and appearances. People recognized me at the grocery store. I began telling my story to television reporters and newspaper writers, becoming a beacon of hope to so many around the world. But I never lost my hope and vision for getting out of that chair.”
With the help of Project Walk, a paralysis recovery center based in San Diego, Arlen pushed towards her goal of walking using the Dardzinski Method, an activity-based therapy. In 2015, her family decided to open the first Project Walk franchise on the East Coast so Arlen could train every day in Boston.
“It became my refuge,” she said. “Despite agonizing frustration, I put in everything I had every day, spending thousands of hours working and fighting for one flicker of a sign that my legs were still alive. For the longest time, I didn’t see even a twitch of movement below my level of injury.”
“Then, on Nov. 11, 2015, I took a small step,” she went on. “I was strapped into a harness above a treadmill and two trainers worked to move my legs. It had been six years since I ‘woke up’ and my legs had shown no life. Most doctors say if there is no improvement after two years, there will be no improvement. Still, I showed up every day, for up to six hours a day, and worked.”
“That day, one of my trainers noticed a flicker, a small movement from within my right leg,” she continued. “It wasn’t much, but it was all the hope I needed. I harnessed that flicker and fanned the flame. Slowly, I began regaining movement in my legs. As they became stronger, I began sitting less and walking with the aid of forearm crutches and leg braces more frequently.”
Five months later, on March 3, 2016, Arlen let go of her crutches and put one foot in front of the other.
“I haven’t stopped since,” she said. “I sometimes feel like the Will Ferrell character Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights. Without my chair, ‘I don’t know what to do with my hands.’ ”
“Sometimes my recovery and the regimen I have to keep feels like a second job,” she added. “But it’s all worth it. It’s been 10 years since I was able to look someone in the eye instead of staring at everyone’s butts all day.”
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For Arlen, standing upright on her own wasn’t just challenging physically — it took a toll on her emotionally, too.
“Without the chair, there is no obvious evidence of my journey, no wheelchair or pink crutches to explain the past 10 years,” she said. “They were such a reminder of what had happened to me that with them; I never felt I could truly move on or be free. But standing was scary, too. I was incredibly nervous about announcing this news. I was unsure how people would react to me. But then I realized this is my journey and nobody else’s and maybe it can give hope to people who need it most.”
“Standing upright felt like drastically changing my hair and then worrying what everyone else would think,” she continued. “I wondered if I would be accepted without my chair. But I needed to be comfortable and at peace with my new identity before I could ask the same from others.”
It goes without saying that the reaction to Arlen’s recovery “has been incredible.”
“I didn’t do this on my own, and I am grateful for everyone who has helped me to this point,” she reflected. “Each day, I become more comfortable with my new reality. I thought taking those steps on March 3 would be my finish line. But really, they were only the beginning.”
Season 25 of Dancing with the Stars premieres Sept. 18 on ABC.