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October 14. 2012 1:09AM

Exeter celebrates woman's 'tragic, beautiful journey'


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)


Kathy Baril of Reminisce, a shop in downtown Exeter, holds up a sign during Saturday’s parade. (Jason Schreiber/Union Leader Correspondent)

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.

jschreiber@newstote.com


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