Victoria’s Victory

Victoria Arlen begins her next chapter at age 25

Victoria Arlen Photo by Jared Charney

We’re in the kitchen of Victoria Arlen’s family home in Exeter. Her mom is shuttling around the house preparing for work. We’ve scheduled a full hour to talk before Arlen’s next appointment at 11 a.m. for her personal training session. She wants to be on time so she can get a full workout in for the day.

Before our interview, I glanced through the comments on Arlen’s Instagram photos. Her fans describe her as “inspiring,” “hope-filled” and “simply beautiful.”

Arlen describes herself as a “donut-loving, jumping-jelly-bean kind of human.”

Today, she is wearing a short, flowing dress with her hair hanging loosely in long, ribboned waves. She stopped by the coffee maker and used the counter for balance as she pulled on stylish black velvet boots with impressively high spiked heels.

A few years ago, the idea of Arlen walking in high heels was unlikely, and even impossible. She was paralyzed from the waist down.

With a vibrant smile and easy laugh, she dances over to the kitchen table and takes a seat. It’s the start of November. Earlier in the week, I had stopped by her event, Victoria’s Victory Costumes for a Cause, in Portsmouth. I was a bit of a wallflower while Arlen, dressed as Buzz Lightyear, moved around the room dancing, laughing and hugging her guests. At one point, she posed in front of a poster of herself modeling Jockey athletic wear and made a face as if to say, “This is crazy.”

Arlen is a public figure with growing popularity. She’s a host at ESPN and the newest host of “American Ninja Warrior Junior.” She’s an athletic-wear designer and the face of Jockey who has images displayed across Jumbotrons in Times Square. She is also often recognized on the street from her days competing on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Arlen lives a fit lifestyle and often trains two or three times a day — she does everything from boxing and SoulCycle to Pure Barre and pilates, and even goes on hiking sessions with her personal trainers in Los Angeles and New Hampshire. “I really like challenging my body and moving. I do a little bit of everything,” says Arlen.

She keeps an active lifestyle partially to stay healthy, partially as a stress management strategy during her busy weeks, and partially because she was paralyzed for years, and nobody knows why she miraculously recovered.

“This last quarter of my life was a bit of a doozy”

When Arlen was 11 years old, her health rapidly degenerated until she slid from being a healthy child to becoming locked in her body in a vegetative state unable to move her muscles or speak.

In the depths of the recovery years, her family diligently worked to find answers. They whispered encouragement to her while she slept and promised her that she would make it through.

After four years in a vegetative state, she blinked. Then, she made a noise. She relearned how to speak. She relearned how to do everything with constant coaching from speech, occupational and physical therapists. With dedicated effort, she left her bed and learned how to navigate a wheelchair. She relearned how to swim. She began training and joined the US Paralympic swim team. She competed in the 2012 Paralympics, where she won a gold and three silver medals.

“I feel like I’ve lived two extremes. I had one extreme where literally everything was taken away. I couldn’t speak or move. For four years, I was pretty much writing my obituary and preparing every single day with the thought that, ‘OK, today’s probably going to be my last day,” says Arlen. “I had to prepare to die. I was really sad that I didn’t have the chance to do the things I had dreamed of doing. I had to be realistic — so I truly didn’t prepare to live.”

Arlen just turned 25. “This feels like the start of a new quarter,” she says. “In this recent phase, I feel like my focus has been on really living.”

But this isn’t an overnight success story. Arlen has chiseled her growth mindset. She is relentless about her habits, her training, her mantras and her rituals.

Today, her life seems supercharged. It’s as if she starts sprinting on a moving sidewalk each morning at sunrise, while the rest of us start speed walking around noon with the hopes of keeping alongside her.

Her motivation was developed from lessons that only intense pain and challenge can teach. She seems driven by a deep desire to balance the scales after spending such a large portion of her young life immobilized.

When she was locked in her body, she would daydream. “I would ask myself, ‘What’s the craziest thing I can dream?’ Like, if I were to come out of this tomorrow, what would I want to do?” she says. “So, I made this list in my mind and just decided that if no one could hear me, then no one could tell me that these ideas were crazy. I decided to believe anything is possible.”

Local fitness instructor and owner of AG Fitness in Stratham, Angela Garcia, has been training and encouraging Victoria Arlen since 2013.

When Arlen’s condition started improving in 2013, she began working out with Angela Garcia — a well-loved local fitness instructor and owner of AG Fitness in Stratham. Arlen had just won a gold medal for swimming at the 2012 London Paralympics with no use of her legs.

“Victoria originally came to me in her wheelchair,” says Garcia. “We focused on dry land conditioning. While we were training, she would talk about her future goals outside of swimming. She would say things like, ‘One day I’m going to wear stilettos to the grocery store.’ I remember saying, ‘I believe you. I believe you.’ We weren’t anywhere close to that goal when we started, but I believed her.”

In 2013, Arlen was still far from strolling the produce aisle in heels, as she was still paralyzed from her waist down. She was an Olympic swimmer, but she was unable to walk. “It was far-fetched at that point. But I still believed her,” Garcia says.

Today, Arlen’s successes can be traced back to moments of uncertainty when she sat down with nothing but a notebook and her imagination to write out her wildest dreams. She says, “I was in a transitional period in 2014. I was feeling down-and-out and asked myself, ‘What am I doing? Where am I going with life?’”

Arlen imagined the possibilities for her next phase of life by jotting down her most ambitious ideas: Write a book. Launch a foundation. Be a host on ESPN. “I wrote out a list of plans in the fall, and that spring I was hired at ESPN.”

“What I appreciate the most about Victoria is her champion mindset,” says Garcia. “She always talks about the importance of having a good mindset. She frequently says, ‘If you visualize it, you can materialize it,’ and she has the capacity to do that. She has such grit and such perseverance about her.”

Arlen credits her dedicated inner circle for helping her to regain strength and the ability to dream again. “I’m very fortunate that I have a really tight circle of family, friends and faith. And that trifecta keeps me sane and grounded, and focused on what really matters,” she says.

It was her support system that helped her recover. “It’s taken a whole lot of processing to get here. For a long time we were all sad and drained. And then we just started celebrating and realized that it’s time to move forward,” Arlen recounts. “If someone has a dream, believe it. Believe in them. It’s so easy to tell people why it won’t work out. Don’t do that to anyone you love. Choose to be their wings to help them fly. Be their support system no matter how crazy the idea is. Fuel someone’s dream with faith, hope, love and by believing in them.”

Remembering to Live

In “Locked In,” Arlen shares her story of recovery after falling into a vegetative state at 11, and how she broke free and never gave up hope that one day she would change the world for the better.

Follow Arlen on social media and you’ll see real-time posts of her frolicking around in fun dresses and spiky heels on set at Universal Studios in Hollywood. You’ll see her sitting in a canvas director’s chair in the ESPN prep room making cross-eyed squishy faces at the camera while being glamorized by makeup artists, stylists and curling irons. You’ll see her during an intense personal training session wearing her Jockey x Victoria pastel-colored, donut-patterned pants. You’ll watch her speak to her fans through her phone camera with such easy laughter that you’ll wonder if she’s reading off cards created by a comedy writer.

She’s a motivational speaker who walks into corporate events and encourages people to think bigger. She also runs Victoria’s Victory Foundation and published an autobiography “Locked In: The Will to Survive and the Resolve to Live” in 2018. And she’s just getting started.

Face It, Embrace It, Defy It, Conquer It

“I’ve been so blessed, and now I get to be a blessing to others,” says Arlen. “And that really drives me because I know what it’s like to hit rock bottom. I’ve been there multiple times. I always joke that I’m a frequent flyer to rock bottom. I’ve really punched my card a few times there.”

Over the past 14 years, Arlen has developed four mindsets to help her navigate the most challenging days. It’s a mental road map that begins when an event throws life into a tailspin: Face It, Embrace It, Defy It, Conquer It.

No one is ready for the challenges that come with limitations. But over the past 10 years, Arlen and her family have gathered together a community of caregivers, physical therapists and mobility assistance programs to make it possible for others to live in hope of healing and recovery.

Since its creation, the Victoria’s Victory Foundation has distributed more than $260,000 to people in need of mobility assistance. People with mobility challenges struggle to go to the bathroom, to their bedroom, to the coffee shop down the street, to physical therapy, to college and to work independent of support from a caregiver. Stairs are a hurdle for people with mobility limitations. Anywhere you might think of going naturally is a challenge with a cost attached. Wheelchairs, retrofitted cars, extra handrails and nurses are prohibitively expensive. For many, it is easier to stay at home.

Victoria’s Victory Foundation wants to make moving about life easier for those with spinal cord injuries or degenerative diseases. “It took a village to help me defy death. It took a village to help me walk. Ultimately, it took a village to help me get back into life,” says Arlen.

This mindset directs the work she does with people who find their way to her foundation for support.

Grants help support what they need, like custom-made wheelchairs, in-home services, adaptable services, vehicle adaptations, accessible housing solutions, funds to learn to walk with a trainer and other support for their conditions. The money helps provide services, training and equipment to people so they can live full lives with as much independence as possible.

Arlen’s mother, Jacqueline Arlen, has been by her daughter’s side through her journey, and was inspired to open the first Project Walk on the East Coast in 2015.

This isn’t the only way the Arlen family is helping others. Arlen’s parents opened up the Project Walk Boston Ability Center in Stratham while Victoria was learning to walk so she could train every single day. They continued to run the paralysis recovery center for others after she graduated from the program. (Learn more about Project Walk here.)

Now, people arrive at Project Walk Boston facing some of the biggest battles of their lives — from birth defects, accidents, illnesses and amputations to loss of connection between the brain and the body. All are embraced and encouraged to work toward their own personal victories.

“Everyday at Project Walk we tell people that it takes a village,” says Arlen. “You don’t just get there on your own. Unfortunately, so many of us are afraid to reach out. Sometimes we think we’re standing alone, but you really always have people around you. It’s taken the people around me that have been like ‘alright, we got you’ to get me to where I am today.”

In 2013, when Arlen was working with a physical therapist to relearn how to walk, she felt a flicker in a muscle in her leg. She fanned the flame of hope this one moment offered. She fought to regain her movement. She stood from her wheelchair. She learned to navigate the world on her own with her hot pink crutches and tie-dye leg braces. She learned to walk. She gained strength in her legs. She was invited to compete on “Dancing with the Stars,” where she foxtrotted her way across the stage. Her muscles strengthened.

To fully understand the transformation Arlen has accomplished, think about this: She had to relearn how to talk and became a TV host and motivational speaker. She had to relearn how to walk and performed on “Dancing with The Stars.” She had to relearn how to swim and became an Olympian. She wanted a donut on a T-shirt, so she designed her own national collection of pastry-themed outfits and became the face of Jockey.

To be liberated from solitary confinement within her body seems to have gifted Arlen with an unmatchable ability to reinvent her life as she moves forward every day.

“When I was really sick, my brothers would come into my hospital room and they would climb into bed and say, ‘You’re going to do great things. One day, you’re going to do these things you want to do.’” says Arlen.

Victoria Arlen and Michael Phelps during the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games Photo by Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images

Her struggles were within her and her successes are now built from her deep desire to prove to herself that she can do anything. She’s absolutely willing to fiercely run toward a challenge. She navigates speed bumps with mantras, secret dance parties and a willingness to talk about her experiences with her inner circle so they can help her move forward faster.

“I feel like you can either choose to cry or choose to try. It’s good to try, but then you have to stand up and put one foot in front of the other or surround yourself with people who are going to pick you up and help you move through,” says Arlen.

Now, in each aspect of her work, she cheers people on as they meet and overcome obstacles. She spends time with her grantees, as well as with the contestants on “American Ninja Warrior Junior.” She celebrates their accomplishments and tells them this is just the beginning of their journey.

Back home in New Hampshire

Since being gifted with a second chance, Arlen has taken full advantage of the possibilities that life and living have to offer. She lives on the West Coast and travels constantly, but she often returns home to New Hampshire to rest between projects.

Arlen keeps herself grounded by taking time off to float around in her donut tube on Lake Winnipesaukee.

She’s drawn back to New Hampshire to recharge. Her sacred spot is Lake Winnipesaukee, where she can float along on an inner tube that looks like a frosted donut. “There’s a magic to New Hampshire. These days I live on an airplane. I live in various places, but there’s always such magic when I come back here. There’s magic to be found when you go up north. We all need that reminder to just look up. The beautiful thing about New Hampshire is you look up and there’s always something beautiful to see,” says Arlen.

The Granite State brings Arlen back to herself. No makeup, no lights, no celebrity — just a person drifting around a lake with family and friends. It’s a place for her to catch up on sleep, wear her hair in a messy top-bun and go fishing with her brothers.

“We live in a world where we want these big, grandiose gestures. I’m very fortunate that I’ve had this extraordinary life, but it’s come at an extraordinary cost. It’s still moments like being able to float on my sprinkled donut on Lake Winnipesaukee that get me,” says Arlen. “I try to make the most of the second chance I’ve been given. Obviously, this is a miracle. I’m trying to make the most of the second chance.”

Project Walk

By Emily Heidt

When you step through the doors of Project Walk Boston, you’re met with a dedicated team of trainers who treat you like part of the family. The Stratham center offers world-renowned programs tailored to your specific needs, and a gym full of state-of-the-art equipment to help you achieve the next stage of recovery. But Project Walk is more than just a gym — it’s a safe space where you can experience the miracle of movement and the healing power of hope. It was the same chance of hope that led current Project Walk Boston owner and CEO, Jacqueline Arlen, and her daughter, Victoria, to Project Walk San Diego in 2013.

“During our three-month stay, we could see that Victoria was making progress in her activity-based recovery training, and I started asking why there wasn’t a similar facility on the East Coast,” says Jacqueline. “The CEO had a meeting and asked if someone would be interested in opening another location, and I felt an immediate wave of divine energy. That was it.”

Four days later, Jacqueline called her husband Larry and said she wanted to open the first Project Walk on the opposite coast. “He didn’t shut me down, but he was a little shocked at the request,” recalls Jacqueline. “I said that this was God’s calling on my life. I had to do it. After visiting Project Walk in San Diego himself, he called me in New Hampshire and said, ‘Yep, we are doing this.’”

Jacqueline sat at her kitchen counter for a year learning more about spinal cord injuries and movement disorders, researching different restorative therapies such as ReWalk, finding potential locations and searching for trainers with servant’s hearts. She notes that she drew inspiration from her daughter’s journey and found solace in the thought that as much as she poured into the journey of others, God would continue to pour His grace and guidance into her.

Jacqueline finished the paperwork for Project Walk Boston, to be based in Stratham, in May 2014, and by January 2015, Jacqueline and her three trainers opened the doors to their first clients in the middle of a 30-inch snowstorm. Victoria continued to train in the facility that her mother ran, and in November 2015, she experienced one of the many miracles that happen at Project Walk — a flicker of movement in her leg. The rest is history.

The facility is celebrating its five-year anniversary this year, and is now home to seven trainers and a G-EO Evolution Gait Trainer, the only one of its kind in the Northeast. It’s a bodyweight supported gait trainer that enables motor compromised individuals to complete a high volume of step repetitions. On average, clients are able to complete anywhere from 1,000-3,000 steps, stairs or a combination of both, in a one-hour G-EO session. The machine has allowed the facility to have more of an impact on pediatric clients during their pediatric program, and it even lead them to change part of the facility to a more child-friendly training space.

Clients ranging from a year to 90 years old continue to come from all over the region, and even as far as India, Singapore and Slovakia, to receive treatment for spinal cord injuries, transverse myelitis, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, ALS and MS. Victoria still serves as a shining example of what happens when you believe in yourself, both in and outside of Project Walk. When she comes back to New Hampshire to visit, Victoria is quick to advise fellow clients not to “go through it, but grow through it,” while Jacqueline comes alongside her and reminds clients that you have to “feel it to heal it.”

“If you need to cry, cry. If you are angry, be angry. If you are frustrated and need a break, take a break to breathe and come back to it,” says Jacqueline. “We like to remind clients that it’s OK to have feelings.” Jacqueline knows from personal experience that this practice applies to caregivers as well.

“It’s just as important for caregivers to nurture themselves as it is for those they are caring for,” says Jacqueline. “I used to cry in the shower and yell and scream in the car. Reach out and understand that you also have to give yourself the chance to feel to heal. Find that place where you can let it out too.”

On days where the weight of their family’s situation felt too heavy, she credits gratitude for keeping her grounded. “On my hardest of mornings, I would feel like the shade would pull down and I didn’t know how I would get through the day, but if I started with gratitude that Victoria was alive, just like our clients are alive, it is amazing how much my day would change,” says Jacqueline. “We tell our caregivers and clients to focus on what they have and not what they’ve lost. Gratitude is the best medicine.”

With a leap of faith, a lot of love, and the support from the therapy you need given by the family you didn’t know you needed, the impossible is made possible and your goals are made a reality at Project Walk.

Categories: Health & Wellness, People