On a heat September evening in Los Angeles, Victoria Arlen, wearing a shimmering jeweled bodice and hot-pink fringe pants, cha-cha’d throughout the dance flooring to The Disco Fries’s “Born Ready.” She hopped, twirled, shimmied, and dipped into the arms of her “Dancing with the Stars” associate ballroom dancer, Valentin Chmerkovskiy, incomes a rating of 19 from the judges and solidifying her as a frontrunner within the competitors’s 25th season. But, pretty much as good as her cha-cha was, it wasn’t Arlen’s strikes alone that introduced the ballroom—and the complete nation—to tears.
Ten years in the past, after she slipped right into a coma, Arlen’s household was informed that she’d by no means get up. Not solely did Arlen get up; she went on to win a Paralympic gold medal. Next, she was informed that she’d by no means regain the flexibility to stroll—but now she’s competing on “Dancing with the Stars.” Arlen is, as Chmerkovskiy, places it, “the closest thing to a living miracle.” And even when she doesn’t take house the coveted Mirrorball Trophy, Arlen has already discovered her stride.
Raised in a small city in New Hampshire, Arlen, a triplet and the one daughter in a household of boys, realized how you can swim at 3 and started swimming competitively six years later, with a dream of competing within the Olympics. “When I was 5, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and I drew an Olympic swimmer with a gold medal,” Arlen says. “But when I got sick, I was like, ‘Well, there goes that dream.’”
In spring 2006, when she was 11, Arlen woke as much as excruciating ache on her proper facet. Initially considering she had a abdomen bug, Arlen’s household let her relaxation for a couple of days earlier than taking her to the emergency room with suspicions that she had appendicitis. Her appendix was eliminated, however her signs solely appeared to worsen. Then, 1 morning, roughly every week later, the ache was mysteriously gone—however Arlen discovered herself paralyzed from the waist down. “I woke up and I wasn’t in pain anymore, but I couldn’t get out of bed,” Arlen says. “I was like, ‘Mummy, I can’t get out of bed. I can’t feel my legs. What is going on?’”
It was as if somebody shut off the circuit breaker for all my motor features.
For the subsequent six weeks, Arlen and her household traveled to “every hospital on the east coast” looking for a prognosis that docs couldn’t give her. Rapidly, her physique started shutting down. After her legs, Arlen misplaced operate in her arms and palms. Then, after weeks of slurred speech, Arlen wakened unable to speak or swallow.
“I was having trouble finding words and my speech started getting more and more muffled,” Arlen says. “It was as if someone shut off the circuit breaker for all my motor functions. I was slowly becoming less and less myself, losing every ability known to man, so the Victoria my family knew was literally slipping away.”
In August 2006, 4 months after her preliminary ache, Arlen was touring in an ambulance to yet one more hospital when abruptly all the things went darkish. She spent the subsequent 2 years in a vegetative state, hooked to a lifeline in a hospital the place she was “written off as a lost cause.” Then, in January 2009, Arlen regained cognitive operate. Though she nonetheless couldn’t see, transfer, or discuss, Arlen might hear the conversations round her—with no approach of letting her household know she was awake. “I was locked in,” Arlen says. “I was initially confused and scared because I didn’t realize all the time that had passed. But then I was like, ‘OK. I need to be proactive here. I need to try and figure a way to get out.’”
I used to be like, ‘I got stuff to do. I don’t have time to be in a vegetative state.’
Arlen spent the subsequent 12 months with violent continuous seizures and overhearing her docs speak about her. She realized that she was recognized with transverse myelitis and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, 2 uncommon autoimmune illnesses that prompted swelling in her mind and spinal twine. She additionally realized that, had she been appropriately recognized from the beginning, a easy steroid injection might’ve prevented the paralysis. Despite the adverse prognosis, Arlen by no means misplaced hope. “I was like, ‘I got stuff to do. I don’t have time to be in a vegetative state,’” Arlen says. “I was 11 when everything first happened, so I really hadn’t experienced life yet.”
In December 2009, after her docs gave her a sleeping medicine to calm seizures, Arlen locked eyes together with her mother for the primary time in 4 years. “I was finally able to have a moment where I wasn’t convulsing and my body wasn’t fighting against me to find that strength, and then I got that little miracle,” Arlen says. “I have big brown eyes so you can’t really miss them. My mom was so elated, so excited. She was like, ‘I knew you were in there.’”
That second was the start of a protracted street to restoration. Twitches in Arlen’s fingers grew to become full-blown actions in her arms. Slurred sounds grew to become long-winded tales. Mentally, Arlen additionally needed to catch up. “I had to learn to slow down and speak slower, because I had so much I wanted to say,” Arlen says. “I also went from being 11 to 15 in what felt like overnight, so it was a bit of a culture shock. There were cellphones and Facebook, so culturally, I wasn’t a little kid anymore. I was a 15 year old.”
However, not all of Arlen’s physique recovered so easily. Due to everlasting nerve injury in her spinal twine, Arlen was informed that she may by no means stroll once more—a prognosis she was hesitant to consider. “With any spinal cord injury, if you don’t see recovery within the first two years, then the likelihood of regaining any sensation is pretty slim. They were pretty dead-set about that right from the get-go,” Arlen says. “But I’m a very hopeful person. In the back of my mind, I always had aspirations and hope that maybe there would be a miracle. I’d had miracles before.”
Still, regardless of Arlen’s optimistic nature, spending her days in a wheelchair with a feeding tube in her mouth didn’t make rejoining highschool straightforward. On her first day, after shifting together with her household to a brand new city in New Hampshire, Arlen recollects being pointed and stared at for being completely different. “My first day of school was miserable. Kids are just cruel and mean,” Arlen says. “We had just moved so I was the new kid in a wheelchair and that’s not necessarily the most welcoming environment.”
In the again of my thoughts, I at all times had hope that possibly there could be a miracle. I’d had miracles earlier than.
Though Arlen was steadily settling again into her life, there was 1 half that was lacking. Since starting her restoration, Arlen had but to step right into a pool. “I was afraid of the water,” Arlen says. “But I was also afraid that it wasn’t going to be the same and it was going to be a harsh reality check that I was different from before.”
Her worries had been assuaged when sooner or later, whereas stress-free on the deck by her household’s pool, Arlen’s older brothers picked her up and tossed her in. Soon after, Arlen’s pool grew to become a paradise the place she might zip round freely with out being tied to a wheelchair. “Taking me into the pool was kind of a moment where I was able to start to take back what was taken away from me,” Arlen says.
Soon after, she rejoined a aggressive swim group, the place her coach steered she check out for the Paralympics. Not figuring out what the Paralympics had been, Arlen took a leap of religion. After months of significant coaching and a formidable race on the United States Paralympic trials, Arlen, at age 17, discovered herself in London in 2012 scoring 3 silver medals, 1 gold, and setting the world document within the 100-meter freestyle.
We had been like, ‘Let’s cha-cha and let’s dance for these different Victorias on the market and people different ‘lost causes.’
And although Arlen’s success was fast, together with a brand new alternative as an ESPN reporter on account of her Paralympic fame, she nonetheless had another impediment to beat: Learning to stroll once more. For the subsequent 4 years, Arlen skilled with treadmills, harnesses, and crutches at Project Walk, a paralysis restoration heart in San Diego, which her dad and mom based in her honor. In November 2015, six years after her legs first went numb, Arlen took her first step. By April 2016, she was in a position stroll with none assist.
Months later, Arlen was requested to compete on the 25th season of “Dancing with the Stars,” a present she informed her mother she needed to be on when she was 10, earlier than her medical nightmare started. In September, every week earlier than her 23rd birthday, Arlen danced for the primary time in entrance of tens of millions. Seconds earlier than the highlight rose, Arlen recalled wanting up, seeing an outdated clip of herself sick, and realizing how a lot she’s overcome. “I was emotional and then I looked at Val and he looked at me and we were like, ‘Let’s cha-cha and let’s dance for those other Victorias out there and those other ‘lost causes,’” Arlen says.
Each time, if I can step on the market and affect 1 life, I’ve achieved my job.
Since her dance flooring debut, Arlen’s obtained constant excessive marks from the judges, flowers from Taylor Swift, and an outpouring of assist from followers who contemplate her journey an inspiration. One of Arlen’s subsequent targets is to switch the time period “disability” with “different ability,” a phrase that doesn’t “negate any situation,” however as an alternative, higher encompasses the various skills—swimming, dancing, preventing—that Arlen and “other Victorias” can do.
“There are other Victorias, there are other people going through really devastating situations,” says Arlen. “I want to be able to show them to keep fighting, to keep believing, and you can have your shining moment. Each time, if I can step out there and impact one life, I’ve done my job.”