At the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Victoria Arlen won four medals, including gold in the 400-meter freestyle (S6).
EXETER, N.H. — They were all there for Victoria.
Nearly 2,000 members of the Exeter community packed the high school gymnasium Friday to welcome home Victoria Arlen, the 17-year-old swimming sensation who captured a gold medal and three silver medals at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Gov. John Lynch stood alongside Arlen and held in his hand an official proclamation declaring Sept. 21 “Victoria Arlen Day” in the state of New Hampshire.
The crowd cheered to a deafening roar. Arlen, her medals draped over her neck, was glowing.
“The enthusiasm in this room is unbelievable,” Lynch said. “All of us in New Hampshire are so proud of Victoria. We’re so honored she was over there representing New Hampshire, which is why I’m so very pleased to declare today ‘Victoria Arlen Day.’ ”
The crowd erupted. A huge smile flashed across Arlen’s face.
This was her day — a day she never could have imagined when she was fighting for her life just a few years ago.
“It’s surreal,” said Arlen, who lost the use of legs from a rare spinal cord disease that nearly took her life. “I feel so blessed to have an incredible state and country behind me. It’s meant the world to me.”
When she was 11, Arlen was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord. The neurological disorder left her paralyzed her from the waist down and forced her into a coma. She was left in a vegetative state for more than two years. Doctors were unsure if she would survive, but she overcame the odds.
Arlen was a competitive swimmer before she was paralyzed, and she was determined to get back in the pool. After training for only a few months, she qualified to compete in June at the U.S. Paralympic Trials. There, she turned heads by setting a world record in the S6 classification of the 400-meter freestyle with a time of 5 minutes, 24.46 seconds.
Arlen went on the have a breakout performance in the Paralympic Games in London, earning gold in the S6 classification of 100 free. She set a world record in that race with a time of 1:13.33. Arlen also earned silver medals in the 50 free, the 400 free, and the 4x100 freestyle relay.
As she won medal after medal in London, she captivated her small New England town, with her races becoming popular viewing online.
“It was great to see her get that far and win,” said Jordan Roberts, a classmate of Arlen’s.
Just days before Arlen was set to compete in London, she underwent a classification review. After U.S. Paralympics appealed the International Paralympic Committee’s decision to reclassify Arlen, she was allowed to remain in her class (S6). The ordeal was trying for Arlen, but now it’s in the past.
During Friday's homecoming, all minds were on the victories, not the hardship.
Exeter High School teacher Kari Grimes brought her two children, Charly, 8, and Johanna, 4, to “Victoria Arlen Day” celebration.
“My kids love her,” Grimes said.
The children asked for Arlen’s autograph, and the swimmer gladly obliged.
“Always believe in the beauty of your dreams and never give up,” Arlen wrote.
The message only fanned the children's enthusiasm after meeting the athlete.
“She’s awesome,” said Charly, who wants to take up swimming now.
Beyond her athleticism, Arlen has become a role model in the local community.
“She’s everything we hope to develop in our students,” said Exeter High Principal Sean Kiley. “She’s smart, articulate, and bright.”
Lynch, the New Hampshire governor, said Arlen embodies the best of what his state’s citizens are all about.
“All of us face adversity at some time,” he said. “The challenge is working through it ... and she did that.”
While Lynch called Arlen an “inspiration,” she gave the credit to her family, pointing out that she “didn’t win all those medals by myself.”
“I couldn’t have asked for a better support system,” she said. “They’ve gotten me through some of the toughest times.”
After her whirlwind experience in the Paralympic Games, Arlen now is focused on finishing her senior year at Exeter High. She’s motivational speaker and an aspiring actress.
As for swimming, Arlen has looked ahead to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.
“I would like to go after it again,” Arlen said. “I love the sport.”