Former Paralympian Victoria Arlen Wows DWTS Judges – Despite Only Learning to Walk Again 18 Months Ago
For Victoria Arlen, pink is more than just a color.
The ESPN personality and former Paralympian swimmer made her dancing debut on Monday’s season 25 premiere of Dancing with the Stars and selected a very special hue for her first dance costume.
After receiving a 19/30 for her and Valentin Chmerkovskiy‘s cha-cha-cha from judges Carrie Ann Inaba, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli, Arlen explained why she chose to wear pink for the dance number.
“This is the color of my first wheelchair, my crutches, my leg braces. Everything throughout this journey has been this neon pink and now it’s my dancing costume,” Arlen, 22, told co-host Tom Bergeron, to whom she also admitted that she “no feeling at all” in her legs, “so it’s literally like kind of dancing blindfolded and having no idea where my lower half is. So it’s really trusting Val.”
At age 11, Arlen 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.
“When I was 11 years old, I got very sick and slipped into a vegetative state for four years and was pretty much written off as a lost cause,” she explained on the premiere episode. “At the age of 15, I’d started to slowly make my way back into the world and about a year and a half ago, I just started walking after spending 10 years in a wheelchair.”
“I think this is a really big statement to myself as well as to the people that kind of wrote me off that I’m here, I lived and I’m ready to dance!” she shared of why she joined the reality dance competition series. “Everything I’ve done that’s scared me has seemed to work out well, so this definitely scares me.”
Along with audiences, Inaba was also blown away by Arlen’s performance.
“Wow! I’ve seen some incredible routines on this show — I’ve been so lucky — but that was one of the most joyous performances I think I’ve ever seen,” the judge shared. “Your balance was incredible. Your leg action was so crisp and clean.”
“There’s something spectacular about you. The best dancers, it’s a connection between spirit and body,” Inaba continued. “I know your body’s still catching up in ways, but I can’t wait to see what the next 10 weeks does for you.”
Speaking with PEOPLE after the show, Arlen admitted that her journey has been an “emotional” one.
“I feel like as much as it was seven years ago, I can go right back there and I saw a particular clip of me in the hospital and suddenly I was right back there trying everything to get something out of my legs,” said Arlen, who was visibly emotional and wiped away tears before performing. “To have watched this show through those challenging times and to finally be here, and then to look over and Val was getting emotional too, I was like, ‘I’m about to dance here in pink fringe and sparkles.’ It was just very surreal and incredibly emotional and far beyond anything that I could ever imagine. It was one of those moments where I just thought, ‘I’m really glad I lived.’ ”
Although Arlen admitted that the dance was a “challenging” one to learn, she is proud of herself for achieving her goal.
“I did it. I survived and made it. I climbed to the top of the mountain and my feet did what I needed them to do. It was incredible. It was just something – you set these dreams when you’re little and you never imagine the things that are going to take place that will derail everything,” she shared. “And to be so derailed and for it all to fall apart just to come back and be better and sparklier and just to nail it was incredible. I was like, ‘Don’t cry on national television, Victoria.’ But I did.”
Dancing with the Stars airs Monday (8 p.m. ET) on ABC.