Celebrity | Television

Before 'Dancing With The Stars', Victoria Arlen Spent Years Trapped In A Coma

ABC / Victoria Arlen

If you remember watching Victoria Arlen glide effortlessly across the stage on Dancing With the Stars, learning that she spent a decade using a wheelchair might shock you.

But before competing on the hit reality show, or working as a television personality for ESPN, Arlen was a U.S. Paralympic athlete with an inspiring life story.

And in her new book, Locked In, Arlen describes what it was like spending her teenage years trapped inside her own body.

"Why can't I get out of bed? Why can't my legs move?"

Victoria Arlen
Arlen at age 11.Victoria Arlen.com

Arlen was a bright and active child, who remembers that she was almost never sick.

That only made her parents more concerned when the 11-year-old was struck down by fainting spells, repeated cases of the flu, and pneumonia.

Gradually, pain and paralysis spread throughout Arlen's body, and after just two weeks she was completely immobilized.

"When I started getting sick I was just confused," Arlen said. "I was asking why can't I get out of bed? Why can't my legs move."

Victoria Arlen
Arlen was completely paralyzed by her disease.Victoria Arlen.com

Her mother, Jacqueline, compared Arlen's body to a switchboard: "Slowly things were getting switched off. Her legs were dragging, then her legs went, then her swallowing started to go and then I noticed that she was becoming less and less engaged."

It would be years before she got an accurate diagnosis, but doctors later realized that Arlen had two varieties of a rare autoimmune disease called myelitis.

Myelitis prevents communication between the brain and body by damaging nerve fibers.

For years, it left Arlen trapped inside her own body - able to see and hear the world around her, but not interact or communicate.

An Accidental Cure

Victoria Arlen
Arlen spent four years trapped inside her body.Victoria Arlen

Arlen remembers waking up from a coma to discover she was trapped in her own body:

"At first I didn't realize I was locked in," she said. "I had sort of a fuzzy distorted memory. Then all of the sudden my mom's not responding, no one's responding and I can't move my eyes."

"That's when I realized they don't know that I'm in here, they don't know that I'm locked in. I was terrified. There's no worse feeling than being aware but not being able to communicate or give your family any sign that you're in there."

Arlen's own doctors expected she would die before making a recovery, and told her parents so while Arlen was still in the room.

Victoria Arlen
Arlen's legs were slow to recover from the effects of her coma.Victoria Arlen - Twitter

"I saw my mom cry, and that's when I decided: 'I'll be damned if this is how my story is going to end.'" Arlen remembered. "I don't want to see that again."

In the end, a stroke of luck saved Arlen's life.

Doctors had prescribed a new medicine to treat her seizures, and an unexpected side effect gave Arlen control of her eyes for the first time in four years.

She was able to blink messages to her mother and doctors, and once they had the right diagnosis a simple steroid treatment started Arlen on the long path to recovery.

Making Up For Lost Time

Victoria Arlen
Just two years after getting her body back, Arlen competed in the Paralympics.BMalkinson - Wikimedia

Arlen had relearn everything after gaining control of her body, including how to speak and how to eat.

The one part of Arlen's body that was slow to recover were her legs, which remained paralyzed.

But that didn't stop Arlen from chasing her dreams. Just two years after getting her body back, Arlen stunned the world at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London.

She took home a gold medal and three silvers, then moved straight on to her next goal: learning to walk again.

Victoria Arlen
Arlen spent five hours a day in rehab while rebuilding her legs.Victoria Arlen.com

With a grueling rehab schedule and the help of a charity called Project Walk, Arlen trained her legs to move again before her atrophied muscles had any sensation.

"There’s just nothing there," she explained. "I learned how to walk without feeling my legs."

Arlen's years of hard work paid off when she was tapped to compete on the 25th season of Dancing With the Stars, cutting a rug alongside Valentin Chmerkovskiy and making it to fifth place.

It's Official !!! #dwts Season 25 !! @iamvalc Any Team Suggestions????

A post shared by Victoria Arlen (@arlenv1) on

Throughout the ups and downs of her life, Arlen's competitive spirit has pushed her to succeed in spite of the odds piled against her.

"I was told I would never walk again but I'm kind of stubborn in that sense. I mean, you're not God you cant tell me what I can and can't do."

Arlen is still working out for hours each day to keep her legs in good health, all while running her charity Victoria's Victory, which offers grants and scholarships.

"The big thing for me is just continuing to be a beacon of hope," she said. "And showing people that nothing is impossible."

[H/T: Today]

Did you know about Victoria's inspiring life story?

I write about all sorts of things for Shared, especially weird facts, celebrity news, and viral stories. CONTACT: zachary@shared.com