BOSTON (CBS) – Five months ago, Victoria Arlen won a Paralympic gold medal in London.
It was an accomplishment few people thought was possible just a few years ago.
“Three to four years ago, when most of my competition and rivals and teammates were training for the London games, I was in a coma,” Arlen told WBZ-TV’s Dan Roche from her Exeter, New Hampshire home. “I was fighting for my life.”
Arlen, now 17, grew up in Hampstead, New Hampshire a lover of all sports. With two triplet brothers and another older brother, it was kind of hard not to. She grew up playing whatever was in season, with her two favorites swimming and hockey. She loved the Olympics, and from a young age had dreams to one day represent the U.S. in the pool.
She was living and loving life, and was full of dreams and aspirations. But everything changed one morning in 2006.
“I had everything going well for me at the age of 11, but that all kind of changed when I woke up to find that my legs weren’t working,” Arlen explained. “After that followed a lot of strange symptoms, and I became completely paralyzed from the waist down.”
For the next three years, as doctors struggled to figure out what was wrong, things only got worse for Victoria. She suffered various complications and ended up in a vegetative state for nearly two years — suffering multiple seizures throughout.
“I was kind of locked in my own body,” she said, “so I was there, but I wasn’t there. I wasn’t really living, I was kind of existing. I knew sort of what was going on; I know my Dad would always come and hang with me in the hospital and he would put on sports. I would watch sports with him, so I was there but I wasn’t in a way.”
“When Victoria first got sick, I just had this feeling that we were in for something,” her mother Jacqueline said. “I wasn’t quite sure but I just kind of had a feeling. It was so devastating.”
Road To Recovery:
For Jacqueline and her husband, Larry, frustrations mounted as they were told by doctors their daughter was dying, and there was nothing they could do.
With Victoria’s condition still puzzling the medical minds, the Arlens turned to holistic methods for the answer.
“As parents we never took ‘no’ for an answer,” said Larry Arlen. “We didn’t believe modern medicine was just not there.”
“I’ll never forget (being) in Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital, in the parent room,” he continued. “(My wife) basically put me up against the wall, telling me that ‘you have to trust me on this.’ And that’s what we did. Not that we’d known we were ever going to come into this amazing journey.”
Shortly after, Victoria was diagnosed with traverse myelitis — a rare neurological disorder of the spinal cord. If diagnosed within the first three months the symptoms Victoria suffered could have been prevented and she would have been able to walk. But in her case, it took doctors three years.
“By the time they diagnosed it they were like ‘get used to being in a wheelchair,’” she said. “At that time I was so sick and just so bad off they didn’t really know what my prognosis for the future was.”
But Victoria and her family kept faith she would overcome. And slowly but surely, she did.
“I was determined to live and I was determined to get back to my old life,” she said. “I had seen what my friends were doing, what my brothers were doing and I wanted to get back to doing it. So I slowly fought back and started to talk again. And move and function, and eat again – because going five years without eating was a bit difficult, because I love food.”
Victoria eventually returned to school, but after missing five years was behind her two brothers. This, in Victoria’s mind, was not going to hold her back from graduating with them.
“I’ve always grown up kind of leading my brothers and I through everything, so I was like ‘oh no, no, no. I need to graduate on time with my brothers,’” she said. “I doubled up my courses so I could catch up to them, and now I get to graduate this year in three years instead of four and on time with my brothers, which is exciting.”
But what kept Victoria going was her love of sports, and the hope she could one day be back to doing what she loved most.
“When I was paralyzed — or told I was paralyzed — and I would be in a wheelchair, I thought my sports career is over. Among many things that most people think about, I was like, “OK, well there goes my sports career.’ And that was the hardest thing.”
As her father will tell you, no one should ever say “no” to Victoria. In late 2009, even before she re-gained her ability to speak, Victoria made it clear she wanted to get back into competitive activities.
An issue of the University Of New Hampshire Magazine had arrived at the Arlen household — where Jacqueline went to school — featuring paralympic sled hockey player Taylor Chace, who was left with partial paralysis after a hit into the boards in 2002.
Chace had just assisted on the game-winning goal at the 2009 Sled Hockey Championships in Norway, and he was about to get credit for another assist.
“When my alumni magazine came to the house it had sled hockey and Taylor Chace (in it) and [Victoria] printed ‘I’m doing this.’ And I’m like ‘OK,’” Jacqueline said with a chuckle. “So she wasn’t even really speaking that much at that time.”
“I signed my Mom ‘I want to be an athlete again, I want to get back into this.’ So I worked really hard that summer,” said Victoria.
She couldn’t push her own wheelchair when she made that request, but soon after she was on a sled playing hockey thanks to the help of the Northeast Passage — a private non-profit organization affiliated with UNH whose goal is to create an environment where individuals with disabilities can enjoy recreational sports with the same freedom of choice, quality of life, and independence as their non-disabled peers.
It wasn’t long until Victoria was on the ice, first with her father pushing her around, and then eventually, on her own. Just eight months after she first took up sled hockey, Victoria was named to the 2011 Women’s National Team.
It was that feeling she had when on the ice that eventually rejuvenated her thirst to return to the pool.
At first, Victoria was terrified at the thought of returning to the water since she no longer had the use of her legs. But thanks to her new coaches and, of course, her family, Victoria soon made that splash — literally.
“My sled hockey coaches inspired me to get back into the pool, (along with) my brothers also chucking me into the water — like literally. One brother had my arms and my other brother had my legs and swung me into the water,” she recalled. “We had a pool at the time and they just got me back into swimming. It was hard at first; I was always a huge swimmer beforehand but didn’t think it was possible now that I didn’t really have function in my legs. So I started re-training my technique and different strokes with my coach.”
“(I) got back into swimming and would compete with able-bodied swimmers. At first I was really slow, so I got beat by 8-year-olds, which was really degrading,” she said with a big smile on her face. “But I was like, ‘you know what, I’m back. I’m swimming.’”
From there, the goals got even bigger. It was time to fulfill that Olympic dream she first had as a five-year-old. It was her hope to be participating in the London games the following year.
“I always want to be the best I can be; at swimming and everything I do,” she said. “It was about a year out to the London Games that I had heard about London, and heard it was where all my family is from – we have a lot of family in Great Britain. The emblem was pink, and that’s my favorite color. There was a lot of signs for that. I said to my parents, ‘I really want to make it to London and swim in the Paralympics.’”
Her parents were taken aback by the request, but believed in their daughter. Victoria entered a local Para-meet, where she went on to win seven gold medals.
After the event, a coach asked her what the next step was. He had obviously never heard Mr. Arlen’s warning about using the word “no” with his daughter.
“I told him I wanted to make it for London. He took me aside and he’s like ‘sweetie, you don’t stand a chance.’ I was like what do you mean and he said ‘you came in way too late in the game. People have been training for this for years… let’s maybe think for Rio. Maybe not this one.’”
“I’m sitting there like ‘excuse me, no. I want to make it to London; give me a shot,’” she said. “The thing with me is if somebody tells me I can’t do something or kind of doubts me, I’m always determined to prove them wrong.”
A bit discouraged by having someone unfamiliar with her situation tell her she couldn’t do something, Victoria turned to her family.
“(My mom) pulled over the car and said ‘don’t you let anyone tell you you can’t do something. If you believe you can do it, you can do it.’ So from there I just trained really, really hard and a month later I broke my first record and qualified for trials for London,” she said. “I made the National team and then just kept training and training.”
Victoria relocated to Beverly, Mass. to train with a team, and from there started to break records – both American and PanAmerican. Not long after that she was off to the trials, where she broke two World records — something she didn’t even notice at the time — and qualified for the Paralympic team in London.
Her life-long dream was coming true, but was far from over.
“Really, I just wanted to make the team. I wasn’t expecting to be a medal contender,” said Victoria. “My first event was the 400-freestyle and I got a silver medal. Then I swam the 5-freestyle and got silver, and then the 4-by-100 relay, which was really cool because I was not expecting to even be on the relay team. I found out the morning of the relay that I was on the team. Here I hadn’t practiced with anyone, so I was so scared but it was great. We got silver.”
It wasn’t until her final race — the 100-meter Freestyle – that Victoria took home the gold, setting another world record in the process with a time of 1:33:33.
“On the last night of competition I won Gold and broke my own World record,” she said. “It was amazing. At the time I didn’t realize I had broken a world record – that seems to happen a lot. That whole day I was like, ‘I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.’ It was my time and I was totally in that mindset. I just went out there and just handed it over and just trusted and just went out and had fun. I touched and looked under and nobody else had touched, and I knew. I looked up and I didn’t even look at the time, I just saw the #1 next to my name and I didn’t even know how to react. I’m like crying, I’m laughing; it was like the Talladega Nights movie with Ricky Bobby, ‘I don’t know where to put my hands!’ I didn’t know where to put my hands!”
“I was just totally oblivious to it all and I cried like a baby on the podium,” she recalled.
Arlen On 2012 Paralympics In London:
The gold medal has not appeased Arlen’s appetite for competition. Victoria is back to training for the World’s team this summer, though that means her hockey career has had to be put on hold. She is on a women’s team, coached by her father, and recently got the chance to play on the TD Garden ice.
While she’s best known for her swimming, she’ll never forget that sled hockey was what got her back into the pool.
“I always tell people I’m just a hockey player who learned how to swim,” she joked. “My coaches would call me ‘Happy Gilmore.’ So now I’ve kind of accepted the title of a swimmer and a hockey player.”
“I love it, I call (hockey) my aggressive sport and I call swimming my majestic and pretty sport,” she said with a smile.
Through it all that she went through, Victoria’s passion for sports and her competitive nature are what got her to where she is today.
“It was a whole mind, body, and soul thing for me because it was like ‘I’m truly back’,” she said. “Getting back into sports was like that one ‘you can do everything else.’ That was that one checklist thing where I said ‘alright I’m officially back and I’m officially capable of doing great things.’”
Great things are certainly in Victoria Arlen’s future. After bringing home gold last summer, New Hampshire Governor John Lynch declared September 21 “Victoria Arlen Day.” Aside from her accomplishments in the pool, Victoria is a straight-A student, and hopes to attend either Harvard or UNH. She’s also trying her hand in acting and modeling.
It’s been a long and remarkable journey for Victoria, but she has plenty left of drive left. Even though she’s already brought home a gold medal, it’s safe to say the best has yet to come for someone that has already concurred so much.