Victoria Arlen defeats British favorite for Paralympic gold

By Jamie M. Blanchard | Dec. 30, 2012, 12 p.m. (ET)
Victoria ArlenVictoria Arlen reacts to winning the women's 100-meter freestyle (S6) at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. The 17 year old from Exeter, N.H., defeated Great Britain's Eleanor Simmonds to claim her first gold in four events.

Highlighted by the London 2012 Paralympic Games, called the greatest Games ever by International Paralympic Committee President Sir Philip Craven, 2012 was a thrilling year for the Paralympic Movement in the United States and around the globe. Records were broken and legacies were made. From Dec. 20-31, will unveil the Top 12 moments of 2012 for U.S. Paralympics in chronological order. 

“Face it. Embrace it. Defy it. Conquer it.”

That is the motto of swimmer Victoria Arlen of Exeter, N.H.

Just 17 years old when she made her international debut at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Arlen had already faced, embraced, defied and conquered so much. She lost the use of her legs due to a rare viral disease, transverse myelitis, which also left her in a vegetative state for three years, ending in Dec. 2009.

Arlen found a new “it” to conquer each day after.

She learned to talk again.

She learned to eat again.

She learned to use her arms again.

And she even learned to swim again, with help from a life jacket.

But Arlen defied the odds even more when she learned to swim again without the help of the jacket. She made it to the U.S. Paralympic Trials – Swimming in Bismarck, N.D. And she conquered the competition, setting world record times en route to making the 2012 U.S. Paralympic Team.

In London, she won silver on Sept. 1 in the women’s 400-meter freestyle (S6). She won silver on Sept. 3 in the 4x100m freestyle relay (34 points) with teammates Anna Eames (Golden Valley, Minn.), Susan Beth Scott (Cape Girardeau, Mo.) and Jessica Long (Baltimore, Md.). And then again on Sept. 4, Arlen won a silver medal in the 50m free (S6).

Three events.

Three silver medals.

Sept. 8 was Arlen’s last chance to conquer “it”. On final night of competition at Aquatics Centre at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the “it” was Great Britain’s Eleanor Simmonds.

Simmonds, the 17 year old poster girl for the Games, already claimed two gold medals in London. One of the gold medals came in the 400m freestyle (S6) where Simmonds overtook Arlen in the final lap. Simmonds also won bronze in the 50m, unable to overcome Arlen with her last strokes.

Arlen started the 100m free on that last night of competition with the lead. In the final stretch, Simmonds was in forth but began gaining on her competitors. The 17,000 fans screamed for their hometown hero but she was unable to overcome the American.

“I knew Ellie was coming up on me. I knew that she was getting closer and closer,” Arlen said after the race. “I just put my head down and went as hard as I could into the wall. When I touched, I look up and Ellie wasn’t there yet. I thought ‘Oh my God, I won.’ I still don’t know what to say.”

Arlen broke her own world record, swimming 1:13.33, while Simmonds finished in 1:14.82.

“It feels incredible to come home with four medals and a world record and personal best times,” she said. “It’s more than I would have even expected. I feel so much pride. Today and every day I swam for all those people that helped me get here and for all the people that are dealing with something and need some hope. I’m excited to share this with the world and it’s just amazing. I’m so thankful.”

When Arlen saw she won the gold medal, she screamed.

“A couple years ago, I just wanted to live,” she said. “I just wanted to talk again, to use my arms. Now I’m here in London, I’m swimming and I just won. The whole journey here, it’s just been a blessing.”

Arlen and Simmonds hugged after the race.

"I know people say that we hate each other but we have become really close friends," Arlen said. "She is a sweetheart. In the ready-room we wish each other luck. We are goofy, but then in the water its competition and whoever wins, wins. She gave me her cap and I gave her mine, we will stay in touch."

Arlen and Simmonds both plan to continue swimming through the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.

Governor John Lynch declared Sept. 21 "Victoria Arlen Day" in New Hampshire.

"Victoria is such an inspiration," he said.

Lindsay Wyskowski contributed to this report.