Once told he would never walk, teen trains with brother to cross the graduation stage

PALATINE, Ill. — Matthew Downing was just six weeks old when his parents learned he had ataxic cerebral palsy, and were told he would always be in a wheelchair.

"I remember feeling angry I couldn't use my legs like everybody else. I didn't understand why I couldn't walk," said Matthew, now 19 years old.

His parents were told physical and occupational therapy would help, but never enough to get Matthew standing on his own two feet.

That changed in fifth grade, when Matthew declared he was not going to be in one more school Halloween parade in a wheelchair. Then that Halloween morning, with little more than sheer grit and a new walker, Matthew pushed through every barrier in front of him.

"I told myself, 'I just gotta keep working toward it,'" Matthew said.

By high school he willed himself from the walker to arm canes, but was told he'd never walk unassisted.

"Turns out that wasn't entirely true," said his older brother Michael Downing.

Michael wasn't a doctor or physical therapist, but he did the one thing no one else could: he convinced Matthew it was possible for him to walk on his own.

So they started working out at a local Crunch gym about two months ago. With each workout, Matthew got stronger, and the drive inside him grew.

"I'll never forget the first day after a big leg workout and Matthew joked with me that even though he couldn't walk before... now he couldn't move any part of his body because it was so sore," Michael said.

One day at the gym, Matthew confided the one dream he had always been afraid to voice.

"I wanted to walk across the stage at my high school graduation," he said.

Well, that would be about 40 feet. Then every day after that, every marker on the gym mat counted.

When Matthew finally walked for the first time, it wasn't in a physical therapy office or at a rehabilitation center. It was in the same gym where he trained every day with his brother. And his brother filmed every step.

"Oh man...it felt so great. Just amazing!" Matthew remembers.

"I think it brought us closer,"Michael said. "Even I, who is perfectly physically capable, needs a crutch sometimes. It's okay to ask for help".

The two now practice walking a 40' mat at their Palatine Crunch Gym every day, proving sometimes it's not the diagnosis but those who help you see past it.

"This is the first time I believe anything is possible," Matthew said.

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