October 09, 2017 05:20 PM


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!

Last week was tough.

The quickstep was very painful for me. The quickstep scared me the most going into this competition. My feet have to move so fast, and that’s just not something they’ve done in over 11 years. I wanted to cry because it was so challenging. My nerve pain was flaring up, but even more importantly, our hearts were so heavy after everything that happened in Las Vegas.

But we felt a tremendous purpose to perform and make people smile and enjoy themselves for a bit. I was happy with the scores and that my feet did what they need to do, and even happier that people responded so positively at home and said they were smiling. [Host Tom Bergeron] telling all the bullies out there to not be an “ass” was just the cherry on top of the cake.

Heidi Gutman/ABC

And physically, I feel like each week I get stronger and my legs adapt better. I consider where I was with the cha cha, where just a cross over with my feet would make them spasm and disoriented, and I see how far I’ve come. In a way, it’s like continuing my physical therapy. It’s helped me physically do things that are making my legs respond in ways they never have before. I’m overcoming quite a bit, and my legs are doing things I never in a million years thought they would be able to do.

Rehearsing for Most Memorable Year Week has been emotional but amazing. I chose to celebrate this year because it’s really the first year I’ve been free from my past and able to focus on my future.

PEOPLE’s special issue 25 Seasons of Dancing with the Stars is on stands now.

Val has created this foxtrot that has honestly left me speechless. We start off with a more interpretive, contemporary feel, and then we go into the foxtrot. I don’t want to give it away, but we’re featuring something that has never been seen on the DWTS ballroom floor before. It’s been a week of healing and celebrating creating this incredible routine that is inspired by my journey.

We’re dancing to One Republic’s “I Lived,” which is a song I love and has actually kind of been my life anthem. It’s been my celebratory song for a few years. Between the song and the dance and the lighting, I just could not ask for a better way to share my story and celebrate life.

This whole week has been emotional for both Val and me, but I know tonight will be so special because of the wonderful dance he has put together. On premiere night I didn’t want to cry on national TV, but I know how powerful our routine can be, and I know it’s going to leave me sobbing like a little baby.

Most Memorable Year Week of DWTS season 25 airs Monday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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