Mara Fineshriber remembers the first time her son mentioned having a friend. He was in fifth grade and made his mom cry tears of joy when he asked to go over to a classmate's house after school.
Ethan Fineshriber is now entering seventh grade with tons of friends — and even fans!
The 11-year-old boy from Sandy, Utah, was diagnosed with autism at age 3, which made it difficult for him to communicate. But taekwondo has helped him come out of his shell.
"He had no interest in interacting with his peers and was content spending hours in his room alone building stuff," Mara Fineshriber told TODAY. "As his mom, you can imagine how much this killed me."
She decided to take action several years ago when she noticed that Ethan, at age 7, wasn’t getting invited to birthday parties and had no one to play with during recess. She took him to a local American Taekwondo Association (ATA) martial arts school.
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There, Ethan underwent a transformation: He immediately went from being angry at his mom for forcing him to leave his room to pleasantly surprised when he realized how much he was enjoying himself — and just how good he was.
Ethan has excelled at the the Korean martial art — whose name means, loosely, "the way of the hand and foot" — so much that he's racked up an Instagram following of nearly 4,000 and counting. His loyal fans come for the taekwondo tutorials and stay to see what new tricks he has up his sleeve.
"When I started doing taekwondo, not only did I become more athletic, but it helped me make friends and become more social," Ethan told TODAY.
Kids in Ethan's class began approaching him to ask for help with certain techniques. He discovered his passion for teaching and started posting tutorials on Instagram, where he gives step-by-step instructions.
"I just love explaining things to people and feel good knowing I'm able to help them improve," Ethan said.
His instructors are so impressed with his skills that they suggested he compete nationally. After taking first place at his first national tournament in March 2013, they approached his mom and said they think he has potential to win a World Championship.
Ethan has the talent and determination to make it happen and after three years of training, sometimes 20 hours a week, he achieved his goal in early July at the ATA World Championship in Little Rock, Arkansas.
When Ethan's win was announced, his instructors weren't surprised, but they were over the moon with excitement, as were the 20 kids who rushed the ring eager to congratulate him.
"As I'm sitting there crying my eyes out, I looked up and saw magic surrounding my son," Mara said. "He finally got to experience the feeling of being loved by people other than family."
Among the friends, and even competitors, who joined Ethan in the ring was Arnav Srinivasan, who had tears in his eyes when giving his best friend a congratulatory hug. Another good friend named Matthew Jaquith practically lost his voice from screaming so loud.
Ethan has made some really great friends through both school and Taekwondo and credits his instructors for helping him improve his social skills.
"They taught me life lessons like how to be nice to people and show respect to others so they'll want to be my friend," Ethan said. "I'm very grateful to them for that."