By Victoria Arlen
As athletes we are always up for a challenge. We thrive on challenges and pushing our bodies to the limit and ultimately aim to do the impossible. In most cases it is usually winning the championship game or breaking a record or making it to the highest level such as the NFL, MLB, NHL or Olympics. Over time your goals become harder and instead of the state title you're going for the national title, instead of the school record you're going for the world record. But as you grow and rise so do the challenges, goals and sometimes obstacles.
For the majority of us thankfully we never have to answer those questions. But for the select few these questions smack you in the face.
I’m one of those select few.
It was 2006, I was eleven and what started with a strange pain in my side turned into one of the hardest battles I’d ever be faced with; surviving. Two incredibly rare neurological conditions (one in a million type of situation) struck my spinal cord and brain like two cars colliding in a head on collision. Causing irreversible damage to my brain and spine and leaving me in a vegetative state and what the experts describe to my family as a hopeless situation. “She may not survive, if she does she will never walk, talk, function normally and be a contributing member of society. She will have severe neurological deficits.” In the experts eyes there was nothing that could be done. Except they failed to realize one thing….
I was still here.
I was literally locked inside my own body, unable to communicate to the doctors or my family that I was in there. I could think and hear clear as day, I just was disconnected from my body.
I have been an athlete all of my life, having three brothers and parents that were athletes that played at the D1 and professional level we always had high aspirations when it came to sports and life. Since I was little I’ve had that “never give up” kind of mindset.
I never realized how prevalent that would become.
Pay attention to the details and the small victories.
Any athlete will tell you the same thing “go big or go home” but sometimes it is the small details and victories that create the biggest impacts.
It was 2010, that’s all it took to let my family know that I was there. After a torturous four years it was a blink of hope that changed the game. From blinking it was speaking, then moving one finger, two fingers and thanks to my brothers teaching me to flip the bird to those doctors that didn't believe in me (for those with brothers I’m sure you understand) then sitting up, holding my head up and eventually learning how to navigate the world in a wheelchair. Everything began to slowly return except for my legs. That in the experts eyes was a “definite” prognosis of never returning. I had come so far, cheated death twice and returned to my family only to be met with a crushing prognosis.
The wheelchair obviously complicated things but it never got in the way. I went on to win gold at the London 2012 games in swimming at the age of seventeen after only being “back” in the world for two years. Then to getting hired in 2015 at the age of twenty as a reporter/host for ESPN, becoming one of the youngest on air personalities ever hired.
Yet despite all of these incredible experiences and accomplishments and despite losing four years of my life there was still something missing.
When you’re an athlete you fight everyday to get stronger and better. I had always trained with the mindset of “be better than you were yesterday”. So why would I lose that now? Sure, in many people’s eyes I “had it all” and should be content where I am. But that’s not who I am. If I was a person that was just content with where I am I wouldn't be here today.
You can never just settle where you are, ever. By settling you stop living.
Never stop living.
When you play at the highest level you normally train at the highest level. Seven days a week for hours and hours it consumes you and becomes who you are. When you become a professional the stakes are even higher, contracts, sponsorships and a lot of money is on the line. Everyday you have to show up and be better than you were yesterday. Never settling and never getting stagnant. When I swam professionally and with Team USA it was my life and my job. Seven days a week I was in a pool training, when I wasn't in the pool I was in the gym and when I wasn't there I was normally eating or sleeping. (I’m almost certain that every athlete reading this can relate.) But in a matter of a year I had achieved everything I could possibly achieve in the sport, three silver medals, multiple world and pan american records and the ultimate goal, a gold medal. There is nothing quite like winning gold for your country and hearing that national anthem play. And don’t get me wrong I was incredibly grateful for all the sport had given me but I still found myself searching for a new challenge.
I could never get over the fact that I had literally defied every odd except for one. I had survived and not only did I come back but I came back at an incredibly fast rate and not only began to live again but I had a life and resume of experiences and accomplishments beyond most wildest’s dreams. But yet I had never gotten back on my feet. And I couldn't get over that. It haunted me every day that I got out of bed and had to sit in my wheelchair, it was a constant reminder of what happened to me and what I had been through. it was the ultimate battle scar. I was paralyzed and although it was unfortunate I made the best of it with pimped out wheelchairs, cool parking and hilarious moments with my family and friends (you wouldn't believe how awkward people can be when they see someone in a wheelchair and my family, friends and I have a sick sense of humor so you can only imagine the shenanigans we got into).
But, who says you can’t do the impossible?
Impossible seems to be kind of my thing and before I knew it I was training at a facility that is known for defying the impossible. Definitely my kind of place. Project Walk based in Carlsbad CA is a world renowned paralysis recovery center aimed at activity based therapy. That is where the flame was lit.
My parents and I agreed that this was the place where I stood the best chance and so that is when we as a family brought Project Walk to the east coast. Project Walk Boston opened its doors on January 24, 2015 and that is when it began. Frustration had plagued me since I began this journey and it was our head trainer John that knew what to do.
“You’re a professional athlete, so I’m going to train you like one.”
I thought when I trained with swimming it was hard but it was nothing compared to this. Six days a week, five to six hours a day. Being tested and pushed to the limit like never before.
Getting back on my feet was my next “gold medal”.
Relentless pursuing the impossible and looking for any sign of life in my legs. Day in and day out, nothing, not even a twitch. Finding the motivation to keep going was at times a feat in of itself.
As athletes we like to see results, normally right away. But for anyone that truly has trained they know the frustration and that almost always the improvements are subtle and barely noticeable. But you know to stay the course no matter how hard and frustrating it is. The daily workouts were probably the hardest I had ever pushed and challenged me the most. I was looking to do something that has never been done before and in order to do that you have to train like you’ve never gained before.
Over and over pushing, moving and praying that something will give. But like all of us doubt always seems to make it’s way in.
November 11, 2015…..One twitch in my right leg, the first controlled muscle reaction in nearly ten years. That was all I needed, that was the momentum.
Like the rest of the journey it is the small victories that have led to the biggest achievements. This small and subtle twitch created a momentum. And as athletes we like momentum.
You have one good game, one fast race and that creates a confidence and drive unlike any other. You keep showing up because you see the progress you’ve made. You like the feeling of achievement and improvement. And you never stop there.
That twitch turned into an active quad muscle firing, which led to a step, then another, and another and in March 2016 nearly ten years since becoming paralyzed I was back on my feet as if nothing had ever been wrong. A step turned into a stair which turned into a 27 inch box jump.
Of course I couldn't stop there, jumping, biking, running and a year almost to the day of returning to my feet skiing in the Swiss Alps, each day continuing to defy the odds and continuing to train like I’ve never trained before. Why do I still train so hard? Because, I know what it’s like to lose it all, I know what it’s like to fall down and I’m never going back there and I’m never going to back down.
Now, this has come at an incredibly exhausting price. But like any major victory and any moment where you’ve “made it” it’s come at a price. Blood, sweat and tears go into every victory big and small and every “golden” moment. The moment you raise the trophy or the moment they put that medal around your neck and the anthem plays you know it’s come at a price. Challenges occur and sometimes you fall to depths that you never even knew were possible. But then with every fall you have the chance to rise higher than ever and be better than you were before.
The journey never stops and I will never stop challenging myself and pushing forward and being an example that nothing is impossible. And I encourage you do to the same, keep pushing, keep believing and know that you can do it. No matter the odds, no matter the prognosis, and no matter what the “experts” say.
Follow Victoria on Twitter & Instagram at @Arlenv1.