Portsmouth Herald: Exeter celebrates Victoria Arlen Day with parade
Community turns out to honor Exeter Paralympian
By Suzanne Laurent
EXETER - Six-year-old Sophie Bosa of Exeter held up a sign she made that read, "I'm proud of you, Victoria," decorated with eight hearts.
Sophie's sentiments echoed in the crowd of 300 who cheered as Paralympic gold-medal swimmer Victoria Arlen made her way down Water Street in a convertible during a parade in her honor. Members of her swim team in Beverly, Mass., and her swim coach, John Ogden, also marched in the parade.
"(Arlen) is a credit to herself and her community," said Sophie's mother, Jill Sweeney-Bosa. "She's also a role model. She looked beyond her disability and moved ahead."
Sophie was thrilled when Arlen noticed her sign and said it was her "favorite" along the route.
Arlen earned one gold medal, three silver medals and set a world record for the 100-meter freestyle at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
Spectators were invited to join in at the end of the parade as it wound its way into Swasey Park for ceremonies hosted by Town Manager Russell Dean.
The event's first speaker, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., talked about Arlen's "Rock your Disability" message that Arlen is bringing across the country as a motivational speaker. She closed her speech with Arlen's own words.
"We all have the power to change our course in life despite the overwhelming odds," Ayotte said. "Sometimes, we just need someone to lean over and whisper, 'You can do it.'"
Ayotte presented a flag to Arlen that was flown over the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in her honor.
U.S. Congressman Frank Guinta, R-N.H., read a proclamation that will be presented in the Library of Congress.
Arlen, 17, became a paraplegic as a result of a five-year childhood illness doctors diagnosed as transverse myelitis, a rare neurological virus that caused inflammation in her spine. She was in a coma for two years ending in December 2009.
She is currently a senior at Exeter High School, and Principal Sean Kiley also spoke of Arlen's accomplishments during the ceremonies Saturday.
"Victoria asked me if I wanted to wear her gold medal," Kiley said. "I felt like a 10-year-old kid for a day."
Kiley said Arlen was "an inspiration to all humanity." "The most important thing is she has respect for herself," he said. "I'm a better person for knowing her."
Arlen's cousin, Larissa Claar, said the two were inseparable since they were children.
"My world was altered," she said of the two years she sat at her cousin's bedside in pain thinking she would never get her back. "But today is living proof that she is back with a bigger smile than ever," she said.
Victoria's mother, Jacqueline Arlen, talked about the tragic but beautiful journey her daughter took her on. "Even during my darkest days, I tried to find something positive," she said.
Two friends also paid tributes. David Corson sang a song he composed accompanied by guitar, "A Song for Victoria." While he sang, Arlen, her parents and cousin all held hands and wiped away the occasional tear.
Childhood friend Ben Thomas, said simply, "She's my hero." He also quoted the words to a Bruno Mars hit song. "And when you smile, the whole world stops and stares for a while," Thomas said. "Cause, girl, you're amazing just the way you are."
Arlen told the crowd to "never give up." "Always keep fighting for your dreams," she said.
At the end of the ceremonies, a letter was read from U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a commendation was read from Gov. John Lynch and a proclamation from the Exeter Board of Selectmen declaring Oct. 13, 2012, "Victoria Arlen Day in the Town of Exeter."
Arlen was then presented a gift from Exeter's selectmen by Selectman Dan Chartrand. It was a sign that will be placed at the Epping Road entrance to the town, proclaiming Exeter as the home of Victoria Arlen, 2012 Paralympics champion, with her motto, "Face it. Embrace it. Defy it. Conquer it."
A second sign will be placed at the town line on Portsmouth Avenue.
Arlen stayed after the ceremonies to talk with the crowd and to sign autographs.