Paralympics swimming star in St Andrews

US Paralympian Victoria Arlen with the four swimming medals she won at the London Games.
US Paralympian Victoria Arlen with the four swimming medals she won at the London Games.

US Swimmer Victoria Arlen was in St Andrews this week following her incredible performance at the London Paralympics.

It was the first time the 17-year-old had visited the town where her grandparents were married and it was a real family occasion.

Arlen beat Team GB favourite Ellie Simmonds in the 100m freestyle final to win the gold in addition to the three silver medals she had already collected.

Her victory also highlighted the miraculous recovery she has made since contracting a life threatening illness.

n Continued on page four

And while there are many inspirational stories about the athletes who took part in the paralympics, the story of how Victoria Arlen came from fighting for her life to becoming a gold medallist swimmer is perhaps unique.

At the age of just 11 she was paralysed from the waist down as a result of a neurological disorder of the spine.

She spent two years in a vegetative state and was given little chance for survival - her parents were told she wouldn’t pull through . The best prognosis was her remaining in that state for the rest of her life.

Her recovery has been described as miraculous and she has had to relearn how to talk and move.

On receiving her gold medal it suddenly hit home just how far she had come.

“When I got on the podium I started to cry and that was remembering back to having to fight for my life and there I was winning a gold medal,” Arlen said.

“Regardless of what had happened to me - I made it.

“I was there on that podium and I was going to enjoy it. When you come close to losing your life and survive you appreciate everything.

“I’m here and I’m able to speak and do everything that I want to do.”

The 17 year old was in St Andrews last week for a holiday in the place where her family originates. Her grandparents married in St Andrews before deciding to emigrate to the US in 1966 with Victoria’s mother Jacqueline.

Speaking exclusively to the Citizen from the family home in St Andrews, Victoria described how it felt to perform so well at the Paralympics.

“I’m so happy, I’m on cloud nine, it’s a surreal experience to be honest,” she explained.

“I’ve been away from home for about a month now and I’m missing my family and friends, my dog and my bed. I can’t wait to sleep in my own bed again!”

“The Olympic village was amazing. The whole atmosphere was just incredible and a lot of that was to do with the volunteers and workers who made it so special. There was such a positive energy around the whole village.

“My targets were really to try and swim a personal best and I hoped to make it to a final - I certainly didn’t expect to come home with four medals.

“I was shocked the first time I raced in front of 17000 people, it was incredible and I’m just so glad to have had that experience.

“At the final of the 400 I knew a lot of people were cheering for Ellie and I was happy for her when she won - that was her fairytale and I’m glad she got it.

“I fed off the crowd. Even though they weren’t necessarily supporting me they were still cheering and it gives you an adrenalin rush.

“But you have to control it because it can make you really nervous as well.”

Victoria gives a lot of credit to her coach, John Ogden, who spotted her potential and told her she was capable of winning medals and breaking records.

The first time she went back in the pool after being paralysed, she swam with her able bodied friends, completely unaware of her potential as a paralympian.

And now that she has reached the top, she hopes the story of her recovery will help others.

She explained: “I dedicated all my achievements in swimming to those who are having to deal with something difficult in their lives, the people who need hope and something to cling onto.

“I wanted to show that it can work out and you should never stop believing in yourself. It’s not about winning medals but remembering where I came from.”

And after London there was no way Victoria could fly home to Exeter in New Hampshire without stopping off in St Andrews, the town she had heard so much about but hadn’t yet visited.

She wasn’t disappointed.

“Although this is my first time in St Andrews, I have always had a real love for this place.

“When I found out the Paralympics were in London one of the first things that crossed my mind was fitting in the chance to come to Scotland and see St Andrews.

“And now I am here it’s just beautiful, I have seen the coast and it feels so peaceful then You go into the town and see all this original architecture, its amazing.”