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August 22. 2013 9:22PM

Moving on

Exeter Paralympian is now riding in style


Exeter native Victoria Arlen, a 2012 Paralympic Gold Medalist, posted for a snapshot with boyfriend Ryan Callahan of Londonderry and a poster printed with her likeness during an open house at Ride-Away's Londonderry headquarters Thursday afternoon. (APRIL GUILMET/Union Leader Correspondent)

LONDONDERRY — While there's no telling where Victoria Arlen's path might lead her next, one thing is certain — she'll be riding there in style.

Arlen, a recent Exeter High School graduate and 2012 Paralympics gold medalist, was the guest of honor during Thursday's open house at the Granite State headquarters of Ride-Away, a company specializing in wheelchair van conversions and other mobility vehicles.

A competitive swimmer, Arlen, 18, won three silver medals as well as a gold medal in the S6 100-meter freestyle during the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London, where she broke the world record in that category.

In June, Arlen was named the brand ambassador for Q'Straint, a company specializing in wheelchair passenger safety solutions.

Arlen's relationship with Ride-Away began last spring, when technicians at the Londonderry mobility van company outfitted her vehicle with hand controls and other technology to make it possible for the busy teenager to fully exercise her independence.

She's been on the road since early April and said receiving her customized vehicle — one she fondly refers to as "Penelope" — has made an enormous difference in her daily life.

"This is a huge step for me," Arlen said. "It meant I was finally able to drive myself to school, to swim practices."

Earlier this month, Arlen, who lost the use of her legs after contracting a rare viral disease, was deemed ineligible to compete in the upcoming IPC World Championships after officials concluded that recent medical tests "failed to prove conclusive evidence of a permanent eligible impairment."

Though she was initially "heartbroken and humiliated" by the news, Arlen said she prefers to focus on the positive.

"It's pretty unfortunate, but what's meant to be will be," she said. "It's all part of a larger plan.

"The truth of the matter is, there are others much worse off than I am," she said.

Although she plans to take a year off before starting college, Arlen said she has no plan to slow down.

She trains regularly to stay in shape, models, acts and does regular appearances at public events where she tries to remind others there's always a silver lining.

"I'm kind of just enjoying life at the moment," said Arlen, whose boyfriend, Ryan Callahan, accompanied her to Thursday's event.

The pair met earlier this summer through mutual friends.

Callahan, a resident of Londonderry, said it wasn't just a lovely smile that drew him to Arlen.

"She's just awesome," Callahan said. "She has the best outlook on life, and I couldn't be happier."

Ride-Away general manager Ron Hoy said helping clients like Arlen makes for a rewarding career.

"She's a great kid with a great story to tell," Hoy said.

Hoy said hosting events like Thursday's are important because many folks living with disabilities simply aren't aware of the many options available to them.

"Doctors don't always tell people about their options and navigating the financial aspects can pose further challenges," he said.

Representatives from various local companies, including BraunAbility, Permobile, Mobility SVM, Explorer Van, Q'Straint, REQ and Charron Medical Services attended the event to demonstrate the most recent offerings available to improve the lives of the disabled.

At Ride-Away, each client's needs are addressed. The company boasts 16 locations, stretching from Florida to Maine.

"Not everyone can be a driver, but we're all about customizing a unique plan to fit each individual according to their needs," Hoy said.

That process can take anywhere from a week to several months to several years, he said.

In Arlen's case, the Exeter teen picked out her new vehicle, a blue Honda CRV, and staff at Ride-Away were able to quickly customize it according to Arlen's measurements to create a vehicle Arlen can access from the rear hatch, climb inside, fold up her wheelchair and hop into the driver's seat. Ride-Away technicians then added the final finishing touches, including wheelchair straps in purple — Arlen's favorite color.

"Then we hooked up little Miss Penelope," Hoy said. "This is truly a job where at the end of the day, you know you were able to help somebody."

aguilmet@newstote.com


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