ESPN on-air personality Victoria Arlen, 23, was born in Boston and raised in southern New Hampshire. At the age of 11, she developed a combination of rare viral diseases that left her in a vegetative state for four years. Her doctors predicted she wouldn’t survive. Upon emerging from the coma, she remained paralyzed and in a wheelchair for several years, during which time she trained as a professional swimmer and won a gold medal in the 2012 Paralympics in London. In 2015, she retook her first step and regained her ability to walk by the next year, eventually making it to the semifinals on Dancing with the Stars, despite having no sensation in her legs. She joined ESPN in 2015, hosting SportsCenter segments, appearing on College GameDay, and covering the X Games, the Special Olympics and the NCAA Frozen Four. Her autobiography, Locked In, will be published this summer.
Jonathan Soroff: You’re kind of a walking miracle. How does that feel?
Victoria Arlen: It’s interesting when you use that term. It’s just odd. I don’t wake up and say, “Wow! I’m a walking miracle!” Sometimes, reality hits me and I’m like, “Wow, that really happened, and this is where I am,” so I think, if anything, it’s still shocking that I can just get up and walk, period. Being called an inspiration or a miracle is still something that’s odd for me, ’cause they’re very large, heavy titles with a lot of pressure to live up to.
Well, what do the experts say about you? Are you one in a million, one in a billion? It’s really funny when you hear a top doctor or expert use the word “miracle,” or say, “We don’t know how to describe this. You shouldn’t be alive, or standing here.” Recovering and recovery, when you were as sick as I was and misdiagnosed for as long as I was, it was really out of the question. The question was whether I’d survive, and if I did, if I would be a vegetable and not a contributing member of society. And I heard all of that. They didn’t realize that I could hear the doctors—despite my family’s hopes—saying behind their backs, “Can you believe this family thinks this kid’s gonna make it? This kid’s a goner.” And they were saying it in front of me, not realizing that I was hearing it, while putting on a kind of façade for my parents. I was told this has never happened before, that no one has come back from what I did. But I really wanted a second chance at life, and I really prayed for one, and now I have it. It’s so surreal. At times, it feels like it happened a decade ago, and then other times, it’s like it happened just yesterday, or I find myself saying, “Did that actually happen?”
It must be completely surreal. Well, it is, because there’s no one else I can talk to about it. I don’t know anyone [to who] I can say, “So, tell me about the time you were in a vegetative state and were paralyzed for a decade. How did that feel?” It’s crazy.
Do you think it makes you take things like bad traffic or a computer problem less seriously? I’m human, and I have my moments. If anything, it’s the littler things that get to me. I feel like I know how to cheat death. I know how to do all these difficult things, but when it comes to the simplest of things, I’ll be overwhelmed. If my computer crashed, I think I’d cry more, because my book is on it. That said, I have a very different perspective, and I’m grateful for that.
How hard was it for you to learn to walk in heels, because you don’t have that sensation? Pretty hard. But my friends think I have the upper hand because I can’t feel how uncomfortable the shoes are. I was skiing this past week, and that was such a learning curve, too, like walking in heels. But I think it would be weird to feel my feet now, because I’m used to it. I mean, sometimes my ankle will roll and I don’t realize it, so I have to be a little more careful. But it also gives me an excuse to buy nicer shoes.
Favorite ballroom dance? I really loved the Argentinean tango. I loved the staccato about it. But I also really loved the contemporary. The tango was cool, because Taylor Swift watched it, and we danced to her song. And with the contemporary, we told such a cool story.
Do you ever have nightmares that you end up back where you were? Oh, absolutely. I’m in the final edits of my book, which is coming out this summer. I have really battled post-traumatic stress in doing it, because I really never talked or cried about what happened to me, until I started writing. I just put on my warrior hat and went for it. So this book really brought that out. Initially, I had nightmares, but when I started talking about it, and dealing with it, and finding the beauty for the pain, it helped. Dancing on Dancing with the Stars was kind of a way to find a purpose for the pain. Me stepping into pink frizzy pants and dancing, after watching that show from a hospital bed, was incredible. And having people tell me that that made them want to fight for themselves or their child was really powerful. There was one girl who decided not to take her life and said, “You helped me find me again. You helped me have hope.” Hope is a powerful, powerful word that we don’t use enough and tend to be afraid of.
When you emerged from your coma, what was the thing that you found was most changed about the world? Well, I went from 11 to 15 overnight, pretty much. I had to learn that boys no longer had cooties, and everybody was texting, and suddenly Justin Bieber is in the picture. Those things were strange, but also, I had changed. I had grown up but didn’t even realize it, so it was a question of finding normalcy, but how do you find normalcy when you’ve spent 4 years in a vegetative state? I always compared it to a building crashing down around me, and I had to sit up and sift through the rubble and dust off the debris. I just honestly went into survival mode and catch-up mode. My mom is constantly reminding me that I’m only 23, because I tend to go, go, go. It’s been a survival technique for me, catching up and making up for lost time.
Is there anything you feel like you missed out on? I missed middle school, but apparently, I’ve been told by many sources that I didn’t miss much. There’s a quote from Joel Osteen: “God will pay you double for your trouble.” I think he’s honestly paid me triple or quadruple, and I’m just getting started. In my family, we laugh that during those four years, I was just consolidating my plans for conquering the world.
Least favorite? The jive was really hard for me, because it’s moving your feet really, really quickly. The quick-step, too. I don’t know where my feet are half the time, so those were hard. But with the jive, I was lucky, because I got to team up with Laurie Hernandez, and it was just so much fun. She was so stellar. She and Val [Chmerkovskiy] made it so much fun.
At a party or a club, are you the first person on the dance floor? [Laughs.] No. It depends on the song and the people I’m with. I have my moves that aren’t ballroom moves, and I’ll get people to dance, but no, I’m not the first one out there.
Would you ever date a pro athlete? Yeah. Absolutely. I think that would be someone who would understand my crazy schedule. I grew up around athletes.
Do you have an increased appreciation of sports because there was a long time when you couldn’t do any of those things? No. I swam professionally for a period of time. I’ve always been an athlete. I grew up playing sports, and I was the first person out there and the last person to leave. Having three brothers, I was always around sports, and my parents were athletes. My dad was a pro athlete. I grew up around sports, whether it was coaching, playing, or whatever. It’s always been a part of me and everything I’ve done has been like the way I approach sports. Learning to walk was like training for the Olympics. That athlete mindset is sort of how I go about life.
Do you ever look at someone in a wheelchair and say to yourself, “I’ll bet that person could walk or overcome whatever they’re struggling with.” Not really. We all have our own journeys. I didn’t think I would walk again. I dreamed about it. I envisioned it and wanted it, but it was an impossible goal. There was nothing going on in my legs and they were deteriorating. We tried everything. So to be honest, when I see someone in a wheelchair or someone with a disability, I don’t see that. I like to learn about them and their stories. We all have our path that God set out for us, and I don’t say, “Oh, you’re gonna walk.” If they want advice or to give it a try, I’ll support them, which is why I started my foundation. To help people achieve their own victories. If anything, my message is: Here’s my story and how I rose above it. You can, too, in whatever way that means to you.
How did you avoid the “Why me?” mindset? I don’t think I ever said, “Why me?” In many ways, I was grateful it was me and not someone else. I knew I could take it, and someone else might not have been able to. I was happy to pave the way, so that there were no other little Victorias out there, going through that.
You’re a triplet. What’s the dynamic like? They’re like my best friends. We don’t finish each other’s sentences, but we’re definitely very close. They’re just amazing humans, and when I was really sick, they just knew what I needed. They never saw me as sick. They just knew how to help me.
True or false: That which doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger? True. Although, it’s OK to be a bit of a shit-show every now and then.
Best perk of working for ESPN? It’s taken me all over the world, so the people and the places I’ve gone. Also, my first year there, my dad’s alma mater, Quinnipiac, was in the Frozen Four, and I got him really cool seats. So I was like Daughter of the Year.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be? To be like Dash in The Incredibles. To be super-fast.
If you could, would you go back and change everything? No. I wouldn’t be the person I am if I did.
So did your experience make you the person you are, or did the person you are allow you to conquer the experience? It made me who I am, and made me the best version of myself. I look at my peers and I feel like I’m a better person because of it. I’m more compassionate because of it. I have such a different, broader, more adventurous perspective on life, realizing that every day is so precious.
Now that you’ve regained the use of your legs, are your pedicures important to you? Pedicures freak me out. I can’t feel my feet or my legs, and the whole point of a pedicure is the massage, so if I go, I’ll make my friends give me a play-by-play of what I’m supposed to be feeling. But shoes are more important to me now than ever. When I was in my wheelchair, I could wear 6, 7, or 8-inch heels, and they’d never get scuffed up. Now all my shoes get scuffed.
Do you think people should listen to their internal voices as much as doctors or experts? My philosophy is to accept the diagnosis, not the prognosis. If I had accepted my prognosis, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d be six feet under. You’ve got to decide: Are you gonna cry, or you gonna try? Doctors aren’t God. In my bed, I heard them saying, “Oh, she’s going to die,” and I was like, “I don’t plan to! I have things I want to achieve and stuff I need to see.” If I’d rolled over and been like, “Bye, Felicia,” that would have been it. You have to choose to fight, choose to live, choose to keep going.
Favorite sport to cover? I love extreme sports. I just got back from Aspen and the X Games. But I grew up in a hockey rink. It’s the sport I know the best.
Are you a huge Boston sports fan? I think so. The Bruins and the Red Sox were so good to me when I came back from London. I got my own jersey. I got to throw out a pitch and drop a puck. Having your own jersey kind of makes you a fan for life.
Athlete you most admire? Bobby Orr. I’m just a huge fan of his, and I think I’d have a heart attack if I met him. I love what he stands for. But I also really admire David Ross. He actually came up to me at a batting practice when I was still in my wheelchair and started a conversation with me. Then, a couple of years later, we’re both working at ESPN, and he remembered me. Then, who would’ve thought that a year after that, he’d be texting me and giving me advice on Dancing with the Stars, because he was on it? We were both intimidated by the Paso Doble.
Was writing Locked In more cathartic or painful? Both. It had its painful moments because a lot of the stuff I wrote I hadn’t talked about or verbalized before. But it was very cathartic. I compared it to pulling out a dagger that had been in my side for a long time. Every now and then, it would bug me, but in writing, it was like pulling it out and finally bleeding and feeling and crying.
Is there anything you miss about being in a wheelchair? Umm…the wise-ass answer would be the parking. But not really. I could pop wheelies whenever I wanted, so that was pretty cool. But for the most part, I don’t really miss it. I did have pimped-out chairs. I had a gold-plated chair, and a pink one, and I could dress them up with my outfits. But I don’t miss it. I spent essentially half my life in it. ◆
Victoria Arlen photographed for The Improper by Joel Benjamin; Styling: Robin Reilly / Anchor Artists; Hair: Liz Bachand / Viselli Salon; Makeup: Ruelyz Andujar / Viselli Salon; Wardrobe: Isabel Marant Étoile sweater from Saks Fifth Avenue, Sophie Hughes earrings