The Aquatics Centre in London, where Victoria Arlen will be swimming during the 2012 Paralympic Games, which will be held from Aug. 29 through Sept. 9 in London.
While at the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Trials earlier this month, Victoria Arlen was still shaking the water out of her ears when she heard a muffled announcement over the loudspeaker about a world record that had just fallen.
“I went over to one my teammates and asked them who had broken a world record,” Arlen said. “They were like, ‘Umm, you did’ and I was completely shocked. It was surreal. I didn’t even know what the record times were.”
The upbeat and outgoing 17-year-old wasn’t done there. Not even close.
She ended the three-day swim meet at the Bismarck State College Aquatic and Wellness Center in Bismarck, N.D., with two world, five Pan American and five more American records under her belt.
In what was the biggest swim meet of her life — to date — Arlen proved her stunning ability inside a swimming pool and more importantly, earned her spot and was nominated for the 2012 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team.
Arlen will join 33 other U.S. swimmers when they take on the world’s best at the 2012 Paralympic Games, which will be held from Aug. 29 through Sept. 9 in London.
Making the team was the main goal, but, Arlen said, breaking world records in the process was not expected. The instant celebrity that followed also threw the teenager for a loop.
“A lot of people I have not talked to in years have been texting and emailing to wish me luck because they read about me online — it’s really been great,” said Arlen, who grew up and still lives in the small town of Exeter, N.H.
Arlen has more than a dozen extended family members who live in England, Scotland and Ireland, and her story was even featured in local newspapers there.
“It’s been a whirlwind to say the least,” Arlen said in between swimming workouts earlier this week. “Even here, my dad went to go get his passport renewed last week and the guys in the federal office knew who I was. It’s been crazy.”
Arlen set one of her two world record marks in the 100-meter freestyle S6 event with a time of 1 minute and 14.74 seconds. She broke another in the 400 free S6 event when she clocked a 5:24.46.
She also collected several regional records in the 50 freestyle, 50 breaststroke and 100 breaststroke events.
With very little knowledge of what the world record marks were before the meet, Arlen said she went into the trials with a goal of setting a personal record or two and possibly making the team.
“I am still very new to the Paralympic world, so I did not have any expectations,” said Arlen, who started to swim competitively when she was 8. “I really just wanted to do my best. The plan was just to get some racing experience. I had no idea this would happen.”
The Arlen family had a lake house when she was growing up and a pool in the backyard, so swimming has always been a part of her life. Her mother, Jacqueline, was a swimmer and got her involved at a young age.
Then in 2006, Arlen, who was always known for her athleticism, woke up one day and her legs were not working and could not support her.
“It took three years like that before doctors could figure it out,” said Arlen, who was eventually diagnosed with the rare condition — transverse myelitis — a neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spine and it left her paralyzed from the waist down.
However, during the three years before her diagnosis, Arlen experienced complications and was left in a vegetative state.
“Once I was diagnosed, the damage had already been done,” Arlen said. “Most doctors did not think I would survive, but I was determined to live. Even though they said I would be in a wheelchair, I had way too much to live for and I slowly started to come back.”
It took two more years for her to relearn how to eat, talk and move. Soon after, she was back in school — Arlen is a rising senior and honor student at Exeter High School — as athletics came back into the picture, too.
It started when she took on one of the more popular sports in New England. Arlen competed with the 2011 U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey team and after a few years, she finally got back in the pool.
“I played sled hockey for a while and basically stayed away from the water because I figured you can’t swim without your legs and kicking,” Arlen said. “But after talking with some coaches, they convinced me to give it a try. I heard about the Paralympics in August and my first meet was in September.”
Arlen has been competing at the Paralympic level for only the last 18 months, so that’s why her performance at the U.S. Trials might have turned some heads.
John Ogden, of the YNS Sharks swim team based out of Massachusetts, has coached Arlen for the last six months and was immediately impressed with her positive attitude and work ethic.
“When I met Victoria, she told me about her goals and aspirations right from the start,” Ogden said while at the U.S. Olympic Trials for swimming in Omaha. “Since then, she has trained six days a week and four hours a day. She is 100 percent committed.
“Victoria is the most positive person I have met in a long time. She brings such a positive vibe that we are blessed to have her. She will do more for our team then we could ever do for her.”
Arlen said she has plenty of work to do before the Games and even though this will be the biggest sporting event of her young life, she is trying her best to relax and remain focused.
One athlete she is sure to battle with is Eleanor Simmonds, 17, of England, who won the gold medal in the 100- and 400 freestyle events at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing and will have home-field advantage in London next month.
“I haven’t really scouted out the competition or anything like that — I’m just going with the flow,” said Arlen, who will be making her first visit to England for the Games. “I really just want to give it my all and represent my country.
“I know I’ve already set the bar pretty high but I want to do even better in London. Sure, I’d love to medal but we’ll see what happens.”