Victoria Arlen didn’t think she’d live to see age 16.
As she lay paralyzed in a hospital bed due to the effects of a rare autoimmune disease that left her bedridden for four years, the teen mentally prepared to die.
“You know when you’re fading away, and I just knew,” the ESPN host and Dancing with the Stars contestant says in the current issue of PEOPLE. “I couldn’t communicate, but in my own way I had to say goodbye to my family.”
But just three months after turning 15, Arlen woke up to find she’d regained control of her eyes.
“From there it was miracle after miracle,” she says of regaining feeling in the upper half of her body.
(Dr. Michael Levy, a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins who has treated Arlen, says only a third of patients recover from transverse myelitis like Alren has. Dr. Levy says Arlen’s age and overall good health prior to her transverse myelitis episode was a major factor in her ability to recover.)
For more from Alren — including how she survived two years conscious but unable to move — pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Ready to make up for lost time, Arlen set lofty goals for herself: first winning gold as a swimmer at the 2012 Paralympic games in London and then defying her doctors’ expectations by learning to walk again.
The latter goal wouldn’t be achieved until November 2015 after months of intense physical therapy, but that triumph allowed Arlen to set her sights on fulfilling her childhood dream of competing on Dancing with the Stars.
“This is the first year that I’m not fighting to get back what was taken away from me,” says Arlen, who spent her 23rd birthday dancing a rumba with Valentin Chmerkovskiy on the Sept. 26 episode of the ABC reality dance competition. “This is the first year that I can finally just live — and I’m going to make it a full life.”
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