Just over a year after Victoria Arlen regained the ability to walk, she was competing for the Mirrorball Trophy alongside partner Val Chmerkovskiy on Dancing With the Stars.
The 23-year-old ESPN host and Paralympic gold medalist had come a long way already after two rare diseases left her totally paralyzed but aware from age 11 to 15. Putting a pair of heels on the legs that still couldn't feel any sensation and dancing in front of the world was a daunting task, she told PopCulture.com exclusively ahead of the August 28 debut of her autobiography, Locked In.
The show had even been an inspiration for her to keep pushing, with her parents putting it on for her while she was in the ICU, telling her that if only she could get better, maybe one day she would find herself on the ABC show.
"Look, if you want to be on Dancing With the Stars, you've gotta get your feet, your ankles coordinated and learn to be graceful," Arlen's trainer used to tell her, she revealed exclusively to PopCulture.
So when she first got the call that producers actually wanted her to appear on the hit series, she was shocked.
"I really had no expectations," she said. "I said, 'I'm going to go in, I'm going to give it a whirl and see what happens.'"
What ended up happening was a trip to the semi-finals of the Season 25 competition, but it wasn't an easy road to get there. She and Chmerkovskiy worked tirelessly the first week on simply keeping her upright and walking in her show heels.
"The first week was just walking and getting in heels and figuring that out for Val and for me," she told PopCulture, recalling the times she would fall and doubt her ability to perform at all. "It was a whole other part of recovery for me.”
She couldn't have asked for a better partner than Chmerkovskiy, however, who from day one was "like a brother" to Arlen.
"I couldn’t have been paired with someone more perfect. Val was just such a friend and mentor," she told PopCulture. "He was like, look, we have a job here to show people that nothing’s impossible and really speak up for those who need a voice. And at the time, and even now with the way the world’s going, people need stuff to believe in. So it was really crazy how me stepping out in pink fringey pants and shaking my tush doing the cha-cha really inspired people and continues to do so.”
Arlen was far from an unknown heading into Dancing With the Stars, having recently wrapped a 30 for 30 special on her journey, but said that appearing in front of everyone on the dancing show skyrocketed her to a place she never expected.
"I never thought to be an inspiration, I never really thought my story was anything special," she admitted. "When I got out of [the vegetative state], I was 15 turning 16 trying to go back to school trying to live a normal life with a giant wheelchair and really just trying to be normal. And I realized that extraordinary challenges lead to extraordinary opportunities and an impact."
She continued: "It took me a little while to really understand that, but dancing really showed me and gave me a whole other purpose for the pain I had endured and the people I had met along the way.”
Nowadays, it's hard to keep Arlen still. In addition to the launch of her book, she's also diving into the writing, acting and production world — although she can't share too much right now.
"There's a lot of fun stuff coming down the pike, and I'm just kind of getting started," she said.0comments
Look for Locked In everywhere you buy books on Aug. 28, 2018.
Photo Credit: David Livingston / Getty Images