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September 07. 2012 1:02AM

Exeter swimmer Arlen's Paralympic Games experience is good as gold


Exeter's Victoria Arlen swims in the women's 400-meter freestyle S6 Saturday at the Aquatics Centre during the Paralympic Games in London. Arlen finished second, earning a silver medal. (ANDREW FIELDING/US PRESSWIRE)

Exeter’s Victoria Arlen is set for the start of the women’s 50-meter freestyle S6 final during the Paralympic Games at the Aquatics Centre in London. (PAUL CUNNINGHAM/US PRESSWIRE)

Eleanor Simmonds, right, of Britain, holds up her gold medal with silver medalist Victoria Arlen of Exeter during the 400m Freestyle S6 medal ceremony in the London 2012 Paralympic Games on Saturday. (REUTERS/Andrew Winning)
Victoria Arlen will dip into the pool at the Aquatics Centre in London's Olympic Park for the final time Saturday with a chance to earn her fourth medal at the 2012 Paralympic Games.

One more entry in the amazing voyage of this Exeter High School senior will be complete when she finishes the 100-meter freestyle event in her classification. It really doesn't matter how the race turns out; the experience has been unforgettable.

“It's been a roller coaster ride of emotions,” Arlen said. “I've loved every moment of it.”

Arlen, who will turn 18 later this month, arrived in London two weeks ago and has had little time to reflect on the remarkable set of events that led her onto a world stage.

“I think afterwards I will be able to sit back and realize all that has happened,” Arlen said. “But it does hit you at random moments.”

One of those moments occurred earlier in the week, following a medals ceremony, when fans flocked to take pictures with Arlen. Another was when she first put on her Team USA jacket.

“You still need to focus on your job, but I'm proud to wear that jacket,” she said.

It doesn't seem possible that Arlen has gotten this far in such a short time. She really didn't begin swimming competitively as a Paralympian until a year ago yet has since set two world records. In these Games, she already has won silver medals in the 50 freestyle S6, 400 freestyle S6 and 4x100 freestyle relay, setting American records in both of her individual events.

And until recently, she was the longest of long shots.

Being one in a set of triplets would be a conversation starter for most people, but that is almost lost in Arlen's story.

Her life changed unimaginably six and a half years ago when, as an active 11 year old who loved to dance, swim and play field hockey, she woke up one morning and her legs wouldn't support her. Two weeks later, she was paralyzed from the waist down. Within another month, she began losing the ability to talk, think and eat. She slipped into a vegetative state soon after, and doctors were not sure she would live.

“That's not what you want to hear,” Arlen said.

It took three years before doctors were able to diagnose her with transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disorder caused by inflammation across both sides of the spinal cord. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the exact cause of the disorder is unknown but could result from viral infections and abnormal immune reactions.

Arlen's eventual treatment allowed her to regain function in her upper body, but she was paralyzed from the waist down. Slowly, she became active again.

An article about Northeast Passage, a program at the University of New Hampshire that enables people with disabilities to remain active, was an impetus and led her to take up sled hockey. She was named to the U.S. women's national sled hockey team in 2011 but really took off athletically when she decided to start swimming again.

She returned to the sport last year with the help of one of her brothers — she said he put her in a life jacket and threw her into the family pool — and her rise has been amazing.

Arlen generally competes at the S6 level — Paralympic classifications range from 1 to 10 based on the severity of the impairment to perform strokes, with Class 10 swimmers being the least affected — and set world records in the 400 freestyle S6 and 100 free S6 during U.S. Paralympic Swim Trials in June.

Her classification was questioned and her eligibility was in doubt at the start of the Games, but Arlen was eventually cleared to compete.

She will be one of the favorites Saturday in the 100 free, along with England's Ellie Simmonds, the defending champion in the event and Arlen's main rival during these Games.

Arlen has her own rooting section. Her mother Jacqueline, who swam competitively at UNH, emigrated from England, and Arlen has relatives throughout Great Britain. Aunts and uncles from over there have been in attendance during the Games, as have been Arlen's mother, father and three brothers.

“It's my little posse,” Arlen said.

Arlen has already missed the first week of school at Exeter High and will miss another week after the Games when she goes to Scotland to visit relatives and do some media appearances.

Exeter principal Sean Kiley said that's no problem, calling it a valuable life experience.

“We are excited to get her back in the community,” Kiley said, adding a pep rally is being planned for Arlen's return. “I just met with the student senate, and it was the first thing they wanted to talk about. They're awestruck.”

The Paralympics are filled with athletes who have remarkable tales to tell of the obstacles they have overcome. But even in that forum, Arlen's story is riveting, almost impossible to believe. Miraculous? Arlen said she believes God had other plans for her and wouldn't let her die.

Kevin Garnett famously said “Anything is possible” after helping the Boston Celtics win the NBA championship in 2008.

Victoria Arlen is living proof.

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Jim Fennell may be reached at jfennell@unionleader.com.

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