Paralympic Gold Medalist Victoria Arlen Talks About Being Paralyzed


Welcome to Talking Body, a series where we have honest conversations with women about their bodies. Today, we have Victoria Arlen, a gold medalist Paralympic swimmer, former world record holder, on-air personality, and newest Jockey brand ambassador. Before she was a success story, she spent nearly four years in a vegetative state, followed by 10 years paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Arlen partnered with Jockey to inspire women to be confident and comfortable inside and out; here, she opens up about the importance of creating a bucket list, the smartest ways to stay physically strong, and her tactics for facing and embracing challenges.

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I’ve had no feeling in my legs longer than I’ve had feeling in my legs. It’s kind of become my new normal and honestly I can’t remember it any other way. I think people almost feel bad in a sense, like, “OMG I am so sorry.” But I am like, why are you sorry? It hasn’t stopped me yet and I don’t plan on it stopping me.

I am not one to give up the fight that easily; I was just determined to prove people wrong. I had a great life and a family I really wanted to see [and] I decided that I was going to fight every single day. I created a really hefty bucket list and I spent a lot of my time preparing for the moment I would break free and be ready to go and make a difference. I made a promise to God and said ‘If you give me a second chance, I will use my voice to change the world and I won’t waste a single moment.’ Every day is such a blessing and I didn’t want to waste it.

Vishal Marapon

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[In the hospital] I was having seizures for 20 hours a day and the [doctors] were trying to get on top of it. They were also trying to get me to sleep because I wasn’t sleeping. They gave me a sleeping drug and it didn’t put me to sleep but it did stop the seizures somehow. A chemical in that drug stopped the signal in my brain from sending the seizures. It was a crazy kind of phenomenon, and I was able to gain some kind of control back. I felt my eyes lock with my mom. She said, “If you hear me, blink twice.” And the rest is history.

I am not one to give up the fight that easily; I was just determined to prove people wrong.

I had to come up with a [motto] that would keep me going. So ‘face it’ means that you have to face the challenge head on. ‘Embrace it’ is to give it a big hug, and ultimately when you embrace it, it allows you to ‘defy it.’ Defy those thoughts, those challenges put against you, and then conquer them. ‘Face it, embrace it, and defy it,’ is kind of my method of overcoming obstacles and achieving great things.

Recovery at first was about learning simple tasks: wiggle one finger, wiggle two fingers. They gave me a wheelchair and it was about six months before I was able to move in the wheelchair and be somewhat independent. [It was] a good year before I was fully able to live a somewhat normal life. And as far as walking, that was an ongoing process. It still kind of is an ongoing process, to be honest. My family opened Project Walk Boston in 2013 so I could train to walk again near my hometown; in January 2015 I had taken steps. I started walking about two years ago this month.

Vishal Marapon

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My leg braces came off in October 2016, and my friend was like, ‘come to barre class with me!’ I reluctantly agreed to go, and it was love at first sight. I was told I would never get leg muscles back again and my ankles would always need braces. [But] I went to one class and I was hooked. People complain about doing barre because their legs are on fire, and I could do it all day! I had no idea what I was doing, but it was such a wonderful environment. I was the person going twice a day.

Nowadays, more than ever, it’s important to share your core values.

I have to exercise. I have to work out a minimum of two hours a day to keep my legs going, because if I don’t move it, I lose it. No one has ever really given me the full clear that my legs aren’t going to just be paralyzed again. Being healthy in general, eating healthy and concentrating on that mind, body, and soul connection is a big part of my life.

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I was really honored when Jockey approached me. They had heard about my story and what it stood for, and it was a tremendous honor. I think nowadays, more than ever, it’s important to share your core values, and for me it’s about gratitude and faith. It is really cool to be a part of something that resonates with me so much.


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