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!
Getting to perform on Dancing with the Stars last week was so surreal and life changing.
There of course was a lot of nervous energy going into our first live performance of the season, but I’m on television for a living, so that didn’t scare me. It was my emotions that were getting to me on Monday.
I’ve watched this show throughout various hard situations in my life: from a hospital bed in the ICU, to sitting in a wheelchair at home. So to actually be standing in the center of that ballroom last week got me very emotional. It shot to the top of my “I’m glad I lived” moments.
That being said, my emotions got to me a little more than I expected them to. I never wanted to cry on national television!
Walking out there I looked around at everyone and then looked down at my pink fringe outfit and thought, “I can’t believe this is happening to me!” But then I looked up and saw a part of the video package that showed me in a hospital bed when I was really, really sick. It was a rough piece of footage for me to see. As much as it was a few years ago, I was suddenly right back there feeling the seizure and the pain. I was overcome with emotion. That that little girl who lost everything was now standing in the ballroom in pink fringe pants, completely free and about to dance. I looked over at Val, and we just both were emotional.
Val has become a dear friend of mine over the past few weeks. He’s so supportive and someone who has really believed in me and shown me how much more I’m capable of and how much more I have to do in life. He’s hard on me and pushes me, but I’m grateful for that and can’t wait to see what more we can do together.
Last week’s cha cha was a very challenging dance. It was really fast, and in rehearsal it was hard for me to keep up with the speed. But Val thought our performance went really well Monday. We both just had the time of our lives, and when you really are in it mentally and physically, it can’t help but go well. There was one part that kept tripping me up, but when we got to that moment in the performance and we made it through, I knew we were solid.
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It was cool to go and hear the judges’ response and see their reaction to it. After watching us dance, [host] Tom Bergeron came over to me and said, “Look what you just did.” That was really cool. It was exciting to hear the judges’ thoughts and see how everyone responded to it. What Carrie Ann said about how the dance made her feel meant a lot to me. We want to spread joy and redefine for people what’s possible, and the fact that people felt joy watching us is a big honor.
We have two very intense dances this week. The cha cha last week was very joyful and very Victoria. This week we have a tango on Monday and a rumba on Tuesday, and they’re more intense and staccato dances, so I’ve had to channel another side. It’s actually more work for me to not smile than to smile. It’s been a little scary the first couple of runs of our dances, but I have to channel my inner bad bitch tonight. But I’m sure smiles will break through, but that’s just because I’m having such a good time. I know from my experience as a swimmer that you put in the work and practice and come game day your body is ready and you just have to trust your training.
I feel a lot more calm going into this week’s show. Last week I had no idea what to expect, and I was kind of just going in blind. Now, I have a better understanding of how the live shows play out.
Val and I just want to go out there and celebrate and be grateful for this opportunity. If we can help just one person out there, then we’ve done our job. We know there is a bigger purpose than just doing well in the competition. I hope that we’re showing everyone that you can fall and lose everything and still stand up taller than you ever did before.
Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays (at 8 p.m. ET) on ABC.