For Victoria Arlen, "Dancing With the Stars" is more than just another reality competition show, it's a reminder of what she's overcome in her young life.
The 22-year-old Paralympian swimmer and ESPN personality blogged for People magazine right before the Season 25 premiere on Monday night. She said that after she was diagnosed with two rare autoimmune conditions at age 11, her parents used "Dancing" to inspire her through her serious health struggles.
Her diagnosis more than a decade ago, she said, included transverse myelitis and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis. The two conditions, according to the Mayo and Cleveland clinics, affect the spinal cord and brain and can cause "paralysis, sensory problems" and even trigger coma.
Arlen said the conditions left her in a vegetative state for almost four years.
"When I was 10 years old, 'Dancing with the Stars' premiered, and I told my mom, 'I’m going to be on that show one day,'" she wrote for People. "We, of course, had no idea that just a year later, even surviving would seem almost impossible."
While she was sick in the following years, Arlen said "DWTS" was "a motivating factor to start my recovery." But she never could have imagined one day being on the show and dancing with past champion Val Chmerkovskiy.
After her dual diagnosis, Arlen's body began to shut down and in a video aired during last night's premiere, she explained what it felt like.
"The lights when out," Arlen said. "I was trapped inside my body, unable to move, talk and function ... I had to prepare for the possibility of dying."
But four years later, Arlen began to regain control of her body. In 2012, she had built up her strength as she continued her comeback -- enough to win gold medals at the London Paralympic games. Even with this turnaround, she said she knew there was more to accomplish, including learning to walk again and even dance.
"When the opportunity came about to do the show, I thought about little Victoria and all the things that I’ve overcome, and I just thought this would be a really cool opportunity to show people that anything is possible," she continued in her blog post for People.
But it won't come easy, she admitted.
"It’s been a reality check that my muscles are still really affected by my spinal cord injury, but it’s also been super empowering to see how much I’m capable of," Arlen wrote. "This is literally the hardest thing I’ve ever embarked on —- and I’ve embarked on really challenging things! But it’s like climbing a mountain, you don’t stop halfway through and say, 'Man, this is hard.' You just keep climbing."
During last night's premiere, Arlen and her partner scored a 19, putting them near the top of the leaderboard.
"Today my life has limitless possibilities," she added in the video for the premiere. "Today, I can say I've realized another dream; being a contestant on 'Dancing With the Stars.'"
Season 25 of "Dancing With the Stars" continues next Monday and Tuesday on ABC.