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Taking steps in the right direction

Michael Fritschner, who is paralyzed from the knees down, at commencement (Photo/Erica Christianson)

Michael Fritschner, who majored in international relations at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, rose from his wheelchair.

As he took his first tenuous step out of the darkened wings onto the brightly lit stage of the Shrine Auditorium, the audience held its collective breath.

Fritschner, a former high school athlete who is paralyzed from the waist down, wore leg braces and used a walking frame to support himself as he slowly, but surely, advanced alone across the stage.

Steven Lamy, USC Dornsife vice dean for academic programs and professor of international relations, was waiting center stage to award him his bachelor’s degree with a minor in business.

Fellow graduates, faculty and guests rose spontaneously to their feet in a standing ovation.

Wearing a wide grin, Fritschner paused half way on his journey across the stage to graciously acknowledge the now resounding cheers and applause. Once he received his degree, two close friends, political science graduates Brad Barbagallo and Alex Wilson, were there to help him fall back into his wheelchair.

What most students take for granted — walking across the stage during graduation — had been a long-cherished dream for Fritschner. On May 17, his dream came true as the months of grueling practice, mixed with a hearty dose of sheer determination, paid off.

As a teenager, Fritschner was a talented athlete with a glowing future. He was captain of his high school football team and had been selected varsity quarterback for his sophomore season. That was when he developed surfer’s myelopathy, a rare spinal cord injury caused by hyperextention of the back. The injury occurred while he surfed for the first time during a 2006 family vacation in Hawaii. The injury, sometimes referred to as “a stroke of the spinal cord,” took away his ability to walk.

“I could feel nothing from my chest down,” said Fritschner, who after years of physical therapy has now regained some feeling above his knees. “I was confused and scared.”

His ambitions of playing in the National Football League were now in tatters. He credits the daily hospital visits from devoted friends for giving him the motivation to go on.

“All they cared about was being my friend, and I realized I am so much more than just an athlete,” he said.

Fritschner arrived at USC in 2009. A recipient of a Swim With Mike scholarship, USC’s fund for physically challenged athletes, he described its founder Ron Orr as “the most supportive guy on Earth.”

“I would not have been able to get through college without him,” said Fritschner, who also paid tribute to Lamy, Liana Stepanyan, assistant professor of Spanish, and Stephen Silk of the USC Marshall School of Business.

“It’s been my dream since I came to USC to walk across the stage at graduation, said Fritschner, an inspirational embodiment of the Trojan motto “Fight On.”

Fritschner’s family was there, including his 88-year-old grandmother who flew in from Texas.

“This really is a dream come true,” declared the proud Fritschner, who said he has no doubt that one day he will walk again. “Today is a reaffirmation that if you work hard, absolutely anything is possible.”

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