CARLSBAD — After another 3-hour work out, Paralympic swimmer Victoria Arlen was hoisted off of a work out table and strapped tightly into a black walker. The 19-year-old was held in a standing position by the massive device, and her hot pink wheelchair was left aside.
In her month-and-a-half of training at Project Walk, Arlen had never done an exercise before that put so much of her body weight on her legs. She waited quietly as her trainers got into position, and her mom watched intently.
Then slowly, Arlen inched forward. Her trainer moved her feet with each step and adjusted her legs into place with the movement. Arlen concentrated on figuring out where her legs were and how they were moving.
Her mom, recording the event on her cell phone, whispered, “Amazing,” and began to cry.
Just months before, the committee in charge of the Paralympics had banned Arlen from swimming in top world competitions for exactly what she was trying to do at Project Walk — walk.
In August, Arlen was preparing to compete in the IPC Swimming World Championships in Montreal with Team USA.
She had already made headlines when she broke world records swimming 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle during the 2012 Paralympic Games.
But three days before the Montreal competition, the IPC Swimming authorities deemed Arlen ineligible to compete for not proving that she had a permanent physical impairment. The ruling came despite the fact that Arlen had been paralyzed from the waist down for the past seven years.
Arlen said that the IPC made their ruling because a doctor had noted in one of her medical records that there is a chance with unforeseeable medical advancements and hard work that she might be able to walk again in the future.
“It’s just unfortunate that I was penalized because I had hope,” she said.
When Arlen was 11 years old, she became sick and in time her illness left her fully paralyzed and in a vegetative state for three years. Doctors eventually determined that Arlen had a neurological disorder, called transverse myelitis, which damaged her spinal cord in two places and a portion of her brain.
She had swum before becoming sick and as she began to recover, her two brothers decided to remind her of that.
“They unhooked my feeding tube, put a life jacket on, carried me out and just jumped in with me,” she recalled.
Her brothers began taking her into the pool every day to help her regain movement and remind her of her love of swimming.
Once Arlen was able to move parts of her upper body again, swimming turned from physical therapy into her passion.
“You can’t take me out of the water. It’s one place where I can go get out of my chair and just be free,” she said.
She has not given up hope that the IPC will reverse its ruling and allow her to compete again. She said that the committee is currently working with her and her family to rectify the situation.
She is currently continuing her swimming training to stay in shape and maintain her competitive edge for when she is permitted to rejoin Team USA.
But in the mean time, Arlen has also turned to Project Walk in Carlsbad to start working towards her dream of one day being able to walk again.
Project Walk offers programs for helping people with spinal cord injuries work towards regaining movement below their level of injury with intense physical therapy.
No one at the organization promises that every client will be able to walk again, but they subscribe to the thinking that despite a major injury, physical limitations are not set in stone and activity-based recovery is the key to unlocking potential physical improvements.
Arlen joined Project Walk in early October, and has completed 3-hour training sessions almost daily since then.
When she returns to her home in New Hampshire before Thanksgiving, she will continue her program remotely and Skype with her trainers.
She said in the time that she’s been at the facility, she’s already noticed little changes in her body.
“It’s small, small gains (like) being able to have more control of my hips when we’re doing assisted standing to being able to try and fire muscles,” she said. “Just getting out of my chair and learning different functions and movements that I can do and not just sit.”
One of her trainers, Jillienne Feather, explained that through repetitive movement, Arlen is working towards redeveloping nervous pathways to connect her brain and muscle groups below her level of injury.
Like other clients, Arlen expressed how different Project Walk is from more conventional physical therapy that is available for people with spinal cord injuries.
“I didn’t want to get used to being in a wheelchair. I wanted to get out of my chair, and they (other physical therapists) wouldn’t let me do that,” she said.
“(At Project Walk), it’s not just sitting around and waiting for (movement) to happen, we’re making it happen. It’s pretty empowering.”
Arlen firmly believes that her efforts at Project Walk should not disqualify her from swimming in Paralympic competitions. As much as she would love to get up out of her wheelchair and run, she knows such progress is years down the line, if it ever happens at all.
She said that she hopes the IPC will learn from working with her.
“I have faith that it’s all going to work out, and the IPC has been really good as far as talking and trying to get this fixed,” she said.
Arlen looks forward to competitively swimming again, but mentioned that she might give triathlons a go in the near future.
But no matter what sport she does, she said she is determined to be able to walk again some day.
“My brother is getting married and I want to be able to stand for the wedding pictures and just be more up and about. And I’m not just one to settle and let this take me over,” she said.