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Out Of Bounds: From A Coma To 'Dancing With The Stars'



How do you dance when you can't feel your legs?


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Everybody dance now.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Live from Hollywood, this is "Dancing With The Stars."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: "Dancing With The Stars" Season 25.

VICTORIA ARLEN: Hi, I'm Victoria Arlen, and I am an ESPN host.

TOM BERGERON: Next on the floor...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Victoria and Val.

BERGERON: Victoria and Val.

ARLEN: I'm ready to dance (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This week in Out of Bounds, Victoria Arlen competed in the semifinals of "Dancing With The Stars." The 23-year-old was diagnosed with two rare autoimmune conditions as a child. She was in a coma for four years and in a wheelchair for nearly a decade. She won a gold medal at the London Paralympics in 2012 before teaching herself how to walk and then dance again. Victoria Arlen joins me now from our studios in Culver City, Calif. Good morning.

ARLEN: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were eliminated this past week. I'm sorry (laughter).

ARLEN: It's OK. Yeah, I mean, obviously, that was not the plan. But all good things. And it was just an amazing ride for sure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have an amazing story of recovery. You couldn't walk until fairly recently. How do you go from being paralyzed to dancing on "Dancing With The Stars?"

ARLEN: I honestly - for me, when I was 10 years old, I wanted to be on the show. I fell in love with the show when it first premiered, and I've always just loved and been fascinated with dance. And my parents really made a promise that they would do everything they could to give me back all that was taken away from me when I got sick. And the biggest thing that was left were my legs.

And so we discovered a program called Project Walk that's actually based out here in California. And my parents, being the epic humans they are, brought it to the East Coast, brought it to our hometown. And a year and a half ago, I took steps. And from there, you know, for me, with everything that I've gone through, when I started to walk, I was like, well, why not run? Why not dance?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But did you know how to dance? I mean, was it something that you were like - did you have a natural ability? Because it seems like going, you know, walking to dancing as well as you dance - that's, like, a big leap.

ARLEN: It's pretty crazy. I did not have dance - much dance experience. When I was 2, I did ballet, tap and jazz. But I think that was the beauty of it. And that was what made the season so special for my partner and I, for Val and I - is because we went out there each time on the dance floor and kind of redefined what was possible. And it wouldn't have been possible without Val.

I mean, Val took this incredible leap and believed in me and gave me these tools in the choreography that really showed me what I was capable of but so many other people, as well. And so it's pretty - it's still pretty mind-blowing. I mean, our first day, just me turning, I fell over. And so the fact that we went from there to the top five is pretty crazy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Val Chmerkovskiy, your partner in this, just in case people don't know. So yeah. When you fell that first time, did you think maybe this was something that was going to be harder than you had thought?

ARLEN: I knew it was going to be challenging. I think (laughter) after our first day, I called my mom crying. And I said, it's really hard to dance when you can't feel your legs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can I ask you just about the mechanics of dancing when you can't feel your legs? Is there anything that you need to do differently, I imagine, to make that work?

ARLEN: It's definitely challenging. I mean, I think for Val and I, we had a lot of keywords that we used and a lot of, like, tappings. So when we would be doing ballroom, he would kind of say, OK, left. OK, right. Yeah, we're going to turn. We're going to change. And so it was a lot of keywords. And it was a lot of repetition to the point where you're not even thinking about - or I'm not even thinking about where my legs are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And who do you want to win?

ARLEN: Who do I want to win? I...


ARLEN: ...You know, it's, this whole season has been just absolutely spectacular. And, you know, for me...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Come on (laughter).

ARLEN: ...You know, I think it's going to be a toss-up between Jordan Fisher and Lindsey Stirling. I think the two of them have been consistently amazing each and every week. I mean, everyone's been amazing, but I really feel like it's going to be a toss-up between the two of them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Victoria Arlen, who is also a host and reporter for ESPN as well as a contestant on "Dancing With The Stars," thank you so much.

ARLEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.