It was a moment four years in the making, but for Anna Sarol, 18, graduation day was a celebration of more than just studying hard. With the help of her sister, she stood up from the wheelchair she uses every day to walk across the stage and collect her diploma as her classmates, family and teachers cheered her on.
"I stood up and could feel all the energy coming together," Sarol told InsideEdition.com of the adrenaline-filled moment. "I looked up and I saw everyone in the crowd and all of my graduating class standing up and clapping for me."
It was a long and difficult road to take those first steps. Sarol was injured in a gymnastics accident on the high bars at the very beginning of her freshman year at Olathe Northwest High School in Olathe, Kansas. The injury damaged the 15-year-old's spine at the 10th thoracic vertebrae, paralyzing her from the waist down and completely changing her life, she said.
"It was a very difficult route, because at first I didn't know what had happened," she said of the accident. "Especially because I was so young, I didn't know how this would affect me."
She spent months in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centers, and worked hard at physical and occupational therapy sessions. Her family set up a GoFundMe page to help cover her medical expenses and raise money for an exoskeleton, a high-tech rehabilitation device that would help her learn to walk again.
Among the many challenges she faced was learning to navigate the world using a wheelchair, which also gave her a new passion: advocating for public spaces to be more accessible for people with disabilities so that "people aren't afraid to get out of their houses because they're afraid of not having accessibility around their environment. It's definitely what I push for," she explained.
But through it all, her goal of walking across the stage to collect her diploma stayed with her.
"I made this promise to myself since I got injured that I would walk across the stage and receive my diploma," Sarol said. "It's crazy to think that four years later, I am here exemplifying the hard work that I have been through and the hours I spent on physical therapy, which all paid off in this moment."
When she stood up and took those first steps with the help of her sister and a walker, Sarol's classmates were stunned, she said.
"My classmates, basically most of them have never seen me walk," she said. "I transferred to a new school and was making new friends, and then a week later, I got injured, so they just never saw me walk."
Sarol said she hopes to become a motivational speaker someday. And the two mantras she lives by?
"Let your faith be bigger than your fear," she said. "Another one that I live by is: 'Stay strong, and make them wonder how you're still smiling,' because I definitely exemplify that and I want people to see that through me."