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Four years of training himself to walk was more than worth it for Fernando Rodriguez, who walked on his own for the first time in eight years in front of over 2,000 people Sunday at his high school graduation.
"It felt surreal, like I was walking on air," Rodriguez told TODAY.
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The 19-year-old from Illinois was diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis when he was 11 and used a wheelchair ever since. It was during his eighth grade graduation that he made the decision to learn how to walk, seeking the help of his school's instructional assistant, Mike Austin, and vocational transitional specialist, Mike Pond.
Together, the two teachers developed a harness using rock climbing gear that allows him to take steps and control his movement without falling. Using this equipment, Rodriguez trained with the goal of walking about 35 steps at high school graduation.
And all that work paid off four years later. At the Rolling Meadows High School graduation, Rodriguez made it across the stage on his own.
"I was so concentrated on getting from point A to point B that I must have blacked out my surroundings," Rodriguez told TODAY, adding that he didn't realize he got a standing ovation.
Dianne Schocker, his special education case manager, was right behind him, pushing his wheelchair just in case Rodriguez needed it.
"Not even for a second did I doubt him," Schocker told TODAY. "I knew he was too strong to give up and get in the wheelchair."
When handed his diploma, Rodriguez raised it proudly in the air as everyone cheered and got up out of their seats.
"I was a proud brother that day," Steve Rodriguez, the high school grad's brother, told TODAY. "As everyone stood up, time slowed down."
For Rodriguez, all he said he remembers is confidently nodding as his therapist, Jason Keasling, asked if he was ready before helping him walk with his walker.
"Both the team approach and Fernando's determination to reach his goal have been tremendous to watch," Keasling told TODAY. "He gave a commencement speech without saying a word. Every step he took was a sign of his strength."
Schocker worked with Rodriguez all four years, coordinating his life at school. She helped him fulfill other goals he set aside for success, such as enrolling him in college prep courses, which helped him get into Harper Community College.
After voicing that he'd like to get more involved in the community, she introduced him to the chess team, bible and prep clubs and even helped him crown the title of wrestling team manager.
On top of school, training and his extracurriculars, he also works at Lutheran Home Retirement Community delivering mail to clients. Schocker is currently working to help him transition to another job now that he's graduated.
"I was really emotional, but found it beautiful to watch my son walk," Martha Rodriguez, his mom, told TODAY. "I knew he'd be able to do it because he was determined."