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Paralympic swimming champion Victoria Arlen of Exeter waves to the crowd while riding in a convertible during a parade in her honor Saturday in downtown Exeter. (Jason Schreiber/Union Leader Correspondent)

Exeter celebrates woman's 'tragic, beautiful journey'

EXETER — Bunches of red, white and blue balloons were tied to light poles.

Little kids handed out American flags.

And from a convertible, Victoria Arlen waved to her fans.

It felt a lot like a Fourth of July parade in downtown Exeter Saturday, but it was a parade to celebrate the achievements of a young American hero who has touched and inspired so many.

&#';It's been a long journey,&#'; the 18-year-old Exeter High School senior told a crowd of about 300 people who gathered around Swasey Parkway after a parade that wound its way through downtown Exeter.

Arlen is a paralympic swimmer who stunned her family, friends and the world last summer when she earned three silver medals and a gold medal at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. She also set a world record for the Women's 100 meter Freestyle — S6 with a time of 1:13.33.

It was a big accomplishment for a young woman in a wheelchair who suffers from a rare neurological disorder that nearly killed her and left her in a vegetative state for two years before she beat the odds through her positive attitude and support from family and friends.

&#';I had people telling me I wasn't going to make it, and I made it. I had people telling me I wasn't going to get back to my life, and I got back to my old life. I fought back and I never gave up,&#'; said Arlen, who suffers from transverse myelitis, a disease that causes inflammation of the spinal cord.

Arlen was recognized at the ceremony by those who know her best along with other dignitaries, including U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta, R-N.H.

Ayotte described Arlen as a remarkable athlete, an inspiration and a role model.

&#';It's very hard for us today as we are honored to be in Victoria's presence to imagine that only a few years ago she was about to begin her recovery from a very serious illness and that she had to relearn simple skills and regain strength and face the daunting physical and emotional challenge of living without the use of her legs,&#'; Ayotte said.

Arlen's mother, Jacqueline, said she often refers to her daughter's fight to overcome the challenges of her disease as a &#';tragic, beautiful journey&#'; filled with &#';incredible highs and incredible lows.&#';

&#';During my darkest days, and there were a lot of them, I would start each day by trying to find whatever positive I could find, and if I started focusing on how sick Victoria truly was, I would not have been able to get out of bed,&#'; she recalled.

It was that positive attitude that kept Arlen and her mother moving forward, and her swimming coach, John Ogden.

&#';When you're a coach and you have an athlete who has that kind of desire or a teacher who has that kind of desire and determination, you better go with it fast because the train is moving,&#'; Ogden said.