Victoria Arlen was born a triplet, with her two brothers. As a little girl, she was extremely talented at sports and loved to dance.
In 2006, When Victoria was 11 years old, she developed two rare conditions known as transverse myelitis and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.
This was an extremely rare scenario, and Victoria quickly lost the ability to speak, eat, walk, and move.
She slipped into a vegetative state in which recovery was unlikely. Arlen spent nearly four years “locked” inside her own body, completely aware of what was going on, just unable to move or communicate. Doctors believed there was little hope of survival, and recovery was unlikely.
The doctors explained to her family that she was in a vegetative state. She was fed through a tube to keep her alive.
“We lost her,” her mother, Jacqueline said.
What nobody knew was that Victoria could actually hear her family beside her hospital bed.
Two years after slipping into the coma, Victoria ‘woke up’ mentally, but could not move her body. She could hear conversations around her and wanted to react, but her body would not obey her commands. She was trapped inside her own body.
Victoria had no way of telling people what was happening to her. She overheard the doctors tell her family that she was effectively brain-dead. She would remain in a vegetative state for the rest of her life.
“But my parents believed in me. They set up a hospital room in our house in New Hampshire, and took care of me. My three brothers — I’m a triplet and we have an older brother — talked to me and kept me in the know about what was going on outside of my room. They empowered me to fight and get stronger. They didn’t know I could hear them, but I could,” Victoria says, as per ESPN.
By 2010, Victoria was completely out of her vegetative state.
It started in December 2009, when she was able to make eye contact with her mother. From there she gradually came back to life. She was able to move a finger, then after a period of time progressed to waving a hand. Eventually, she was able to form words, and words became sentences.
But in spite of the incredible improvements there remained one thing she couldn’t do: move her legs.
Victoria was told that the swelling to her brain and spinal cord had caused permanent damage. She would be paralysed from her waist down forever.
Each specialist told her the same: “You have to get used to sitting in a wheelchair.”
But Victoria boasts willpower like few others. She fought to overcome the impossible odds.
When doctors told her she would never walk, she refused to believe them. She knew that she wasn’t destined to spend her entire life in a chair.
She had looked forward to going back to school, but after her first day there she never wanted to return after being bullied for being in a wheelchair.
“Although I believed I would walk again, I knew it would be a long, difficult road littered with challenges I couldn’t foresee. I remember coming home from high school one day crushed because kids were bullying me because of my chair. I had been so happy to return to school and after that day, I didn’t want to go back. As my crying subsided, my parents promised they would do whatever it took to help me to walk again. They kept that promise. They never lost hope.” Victoria said.
“At some points, hope was the only thing I had. When I began my journey toward walking again, I clung to hope like a life raft. There is a Helen Keller quote that I saved in a journal I’ve kept along this journey. “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” I had hope; I was still working on confidence.”
Growing up, I was a water baby. We lived near a lake, had a pool in our backyard and as soon as I was old enough, I joined a swim team. By 10, I was winning local events. As I began to heal from my illness, I came to the sad realization that I would never swim again. I didn’t think I could swim without my legs. But my brothers disagreed, so in 2010 they threw me into our pool. I was terrified. But it was a turning point in my life. It was the “jump” I needed to get back to my life. When I was swimming, I was free from the chair. And to my surprise, I was still good. In the water, I found freedom — and my confidence.”
In the summer of 2012, at 17, Victoria was part of the US team that competed in the Paralympic Olympic Games. She took home three silver medals and one gold in the 100 meter freestyle. She also set a new world record in the latter event.
When she returned home from London, much of the world knew who she was. Victoria was invited to speak as a lecturer, and people began to recognise her in the grocery store.
She began to tell her story to television reporters and magazines; she became an inspiration for millions around the world.
In 2013, Victoria moved to San Diego to participate in the Project Walk program, which helps paralysed people to stand on their own two legs again.
“My mother and I temporarily relocated to San Diego and lived with family so I could train every day. We realized this was the place that could help me, but we didn’t want to live hundreds of miles away from my brothers and dad. So, keeping their promise, my family decided to open the first Project Walk franchise on the East Coast. This way, I could train every day and achieve my goal, while others in my hometown could regain the hope they needed,” Victoria says.
Specialists at the hospital were still sceptical over Victoria’s capacity to walk.
A doctor told her parents he wouldn’t “mortgage his house on it”. They responded by doing exactly that, so that they could afford to open a Project Walk Boston.
On November, 11, 2015, Victoria took her first small steps.
She was held in a harness above a treadmill, with two coaches helping her to move her legs.
By then, it had been six years since she had ‘woken up’. He legs had been declared dead by multiple doctors, again and again.
Still, Victoria got up every single day and trained six hours to reach her goal.
Slowly, she began to regain movement in her legs. She started to be able to walk with the assistance of crutches.
Five months later, on March 3, 2016, she got rid of the crutches completely and put one foot in front of the other independently. She hasn’t stopped since then.
“That’s not to say every day is perfect. Walking is still challenging and I still have significant impairment. I wear leg braces, follow a training program for two-to-three hours per day and on the days when my legs feel more paralyzed, I have my chair or crutches on standby. But my struggle is now less visible,” she explains.
Only her coach and her close family know the true extent of the damage, and the effort it takes for her to continue progressing each day.
“But it’s all worth it. It’s been 10 years since I was able to look someone in the eye instead of staring at everyone’s butts all day.”
When Victoria first stood up from her wheelchair, she didn’t know what to think.
She was unsure how people would react to her.
“But then I realized this is my journey and nobody else’s and maybe it can give hope to people who need it most.”
Today, Victoria has found her new identity after a turbulent 10-year journey.
She is a Paralympic gold medalist, a program leader for the ESPN sports channel and, most of all, a survivor.
Victoria is often seen as a walking, talking miracle, and an inspiration for all. She, however, is careful to point out one thing:
“I didn’t do this on my own, and I am grateful for everyone who has helped me to this point. Each day, I become more comfortable with my new reality. I thought taking those steps on March 3 would be my finish line. But really, they were only the beginning.”
What an incredible journey and what an incredible woman Victoria has become.