At 5 years old, Victoria Arlen knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. She drew a picture of herself in her swimming cap wearing an Olympic gold medal and matter-of-factly told her parents she was going to be an Olympian. Flash forward nearly 20 years, and Victoria has knocked that title off her bucket list and then some. Topping her impressive résumé along with gold medalist is TV show host, motivational speaker, model, and now clothing designer, thanks to her new athleisure collaboration with Jockey®. But despite her various titles, perhaps her most important one, the one that changed everything, is survivor.
Victoria was 11 years old when she and her family realized something was off. She went from being the kid who never got sick to the kid who couldn't stop getting sick. "I developed asthma, I would get pneumonia, I would get the flu," she said. "But I would always bounce back. And I was doing well in school and in sports so there was no real cause for concern." At the time, she was an avid swimmer and all-around active kid, so Victoria and her family weren't all that concerned.
In April 2006, Victoria's health took a turn for the worst. She remembers barely being able to get off the couch, barely being able to lift her head. As a result, doctors removed her appendix, which, in hindsight, is what "unlocked the tornado." "Within two weeks, I had lost a bunch of weight and then my legs started to drag," Victoria said. "It was a three-month period where every switch in my body, like a circuit breaker, was just being shut off. The doctors could not figure out what was happening or what was wrong. I was deteriorating right in front of my family."
"Doctors told my parents, 'She's not going to make it; you should say goodbye.'"
Victoria's slow health decline eventually left her paralyzed in a vegetative state. "First my legs went, then my fine motor skills, and slowly my speech. Finally, it was lights out," she said. For four years, Victoria was unable to move and unable to communicate. When she first woke up in her vegetative state, she didn't even realize that a year and a half had already passed.
"I was so groggy and then I realized, 'Wait, I can't move my eyes and no one's responding to what I'm saying,'" she said. "I realized then I was locked in. I knew something was really wrong, and that's when I started to get really scared."
By the time doctors figured out what was going on, there was nothing they could do. "We got the first diagnosis of transverse myelitis in 2009 but we didn't get the final acute disseminated encephalomyelitis until 2013," Victoria explained. "Doctors missed the crucial treatment window, which is really the first two weeks to a month." Acute disseminated encephalomyelitis is a condition that affects the brain and spinal cord, which explains her paralysis and vegetative state.
At this point, doctors told Victoria's parents and her two brothers — she's a triplet — that, in short, she wasn't going to make it. "They said, 'You should say goodbye. If she does make it, she'll be a vegetable the rest of her life and you should put her away in a home and move on with your life.'"
Fortunately, Victoria comes from a family that doesn't back down. "My parents were like, 'Do whatever you need to do to stabilize her, and we're going to take care of her ourselves,'" she said.
Even more remarkable, Victoria managed to keep a hopeful outlook despite everything she was going through. "I had to make a decision to be positive right from the beginning. I told myself, 'Look, this could get really scary really quickly. So I have two options here. I can be negative, I can give up, I can give in, or I can really try to find things to be grateful for,'" she said. "From there, I started dreaming. I would say, 'OK, I'm one day closer, what am I going to do when I get out of here? Because at this point, if I make it through this, then really nothing's going to be too hard or too impossible.'"
Turns out, Victoria was right! At age 15, she finally emerged from her vegetative state, which had previously seemed impossible. By age 17, she was a Paralympian and a gold medalist after winning in London.
Her next challenge? Freedom from her wheelchair. She trained six days a week for six hours a day. "We eventually got a flicker in my right leg," she said. "That was the first active muscle twitch we had gotten in almost a decade. “From there, I fanned the flame and kept going." Today, Victoria can walk and even work out on her own. And although she’s never regained feeling in her legs, she hasn’t let that stop her from accomplishing what most people only dream about.
"Your obstacles don't have to permanently weigh you down."
In April 2015, Victoria transitioned from professional athlete to sportscaster, joining ESPN as one of the youngest on-air talents hired by the company. Two years later, she competed on season 25 of Dancing With the Stars. She’s also the founder and cochair of Victoria's Victory Foundation, which helps those with mobility challenges, the author of an autobiography titled Locked in, and will next be seen as the new cohost of American Ninja Warrior Junior.
On the surface, Victoria's donut-themed Jockey® capsule collection is cheerful, fun, and light, but her overall message is much deeper than that. "I love donuts, but not necessarily eating them all the time — I love the concept of a donut," she said. "You can't possibly look at a sprinkled donut and not smile." Victoria's goal with her feel-good line is to inspire people to turn their struggles into sprinkles and throw them up in the air. She also wants people to feel motivated to go after those impossible dreams and make them possible — just like she did.
Victoria even incorporated her personal mantra into the line: Face it. Embrace it. Defy it. Conquer it.™ It's a phrase she came up with and constantly repeated to herself while she was in her vegetative state. "I think we all need a reminder sometimes to push forward. For me, that mantra was my internal sticky note, and it was actually Jockey® that wanted to bring it into my clothing designs," she said. "I realized, 'Oh wait, maybe this will help someone else.'"
Because she's always on the go due to her various gigs, Victoria also wanted to create clothes that people could truly live in and feel confident in; reliable, comfortable items that can be worn by anyone. "I pretty much live on an airplane or in a hotel room, but if I have my statement comfort pieces, I can unwind anywhere," she said. "I hope this line reminds people to take a breath and relax a little bit — and look cute while doing it!"
Her favorite piece, the cocoon cardigan, is the perfect example of a versatile jacket that can easily be dressed up or down. While it's an ideal lounge piece, Victoria even recommends wearing it to a meeting in place of a blazer. "We worked very hard on the designs, and it's very much catered to my style, but I love the message behind it and I love the materials and the fits," she said. "I want people to feel empowered when they wear these clothes. If you've got a good outfit or if you've got something that you feel confident in, you can conquer anything."
"Half the time, your journey is far greater than you could imagine, you just have to let it unfold."
Looking at Victoria today, you'd never know the dramatic health struggles she has been through. Now, the motivational speaker hopes her story can help inspire and motivate others to accomplish their dreams and overcome challenges.
"Life is a series of climbing mountains, and when you're going through it, when you're in the middle of it, there are times where you don't want to keep climbing, but you just have to believe that the view from the top is worth it," Victoria said. "For me, it's always been the lowest moments that have led me to the highest peaks."