Victoria Arlen is an ESPN personality and former Paralympian swimmer and who, at age 11, was diagnosed with a neurological condition and an autoimmune disease, which affected her spinal cord and left her in a vegetative state for four years. Arlen slowly regained the ability to speak, eat, walk, and move and now is competing on season 25 of Dancing with the Stars — and is blogging about her experience on the ABC reality show exclusively for PEOPLE. Follow Arlen, 22, and her partner Valentin Chmerkovskiy, 31, on Twitter!
When I was 10 years old, Dancing with the Stars premiered, and I told my mom, “I’m going to be on that show one day.” We, of course, had no idea that just a year later, even surviving would seem almost impossible.
[Editor’s note: At age 11, Arlen was diagnosed with transverse myelitis and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, an extremely rare scenario that left her in a vegetative state for almost four years.]
When I was sick, my parents would remember that dream and put DWTS on the TV so I could watch it. It was always a motivating factor to start my recovery but I never imagined I would actually do it.
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When the opportunity came about to do the show, I thought about little Victoria and all the things that I’ve overcome, and I just thought this would be a really cool opportunity to show people that anything is possible.
I grew up doing tap, jazz and ballet, so I understand rhythm and movement and performing. But I’ve been out of the commission in the dancing realm for 11 years now, and learning to walk again was an incredible challenge, so I didn’t know how I would take to dancing again.
You know that feeling when your leg falls asleep and you can’t really feel it or move it? Well, that’s what my legs feel like all the time, so being fluid and graceful has been difficult. But rehearsals are going great. Val and I are having a lot of fun together. He’s an incredible dancer and teacher and friend, and he’s really helped me find my footing.
Still, it’s been a really intense and challenging experience so far. It’s been a reality check that my muscles are still really affected by my spinal cord injury, but it’s also been super empowering to see how much I’m capable of.
And there are some days I feel grateful that I can’t feel my legs, because those shoes are tearing up my feet. My arms are sore at the end of every day, but I’m lucky because I came into this very strong. I work out two to three hours a day, and being a professional athlete has helped with my endurance. My swimmer man-shoulders help.
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With everything going on in my life, I’m really health-conscious, but dancing for hours each day has been a challenge. Well, challenge is an understatement. This is literally the hardest thing I’ve ever embarked on — and I’ve embarked on really challenging things! But it’s like climbing a mountain, you don’t stop halfway through and say, “Man, this is hard.” You just keep climbing and accept any challenge that comes along until you get to the top and get to enjoy the incredible view.
Going into tonight’s premiere, I’m nervous. But every cool thing I’ve done, I’ve been nervous, so that’s a good thing. I’m going to channel that into great energy when I get out there. It’s surreal for me to be here and emotional in this beautiful way. I hope I prove to myself and to everyone watching that anyone can accomplish anything.