A revolutionary treatment helped Christian Guardino regain most of his sight when he was 12

Christian Guardino wowed America’s Got Talent viewers across the country with his inspiring performance, earning him the golden buzzer during Tuesday night’s episode. The formerly blind singer, 17, made Simon Cowell’s jaw drop just seconds into his take on The Jackson 5’s “Who’s Lovin’ You.” After receiving a standing ovation from the judges and audience, Howie Mandel slammed the coveted button.

“I wanted to cry,” Guardino tells EW, reliving the unexpected moment of glory. “I was really nervous before I got on stage. I was just thinking, I can’t mess up. I can’t mess up. I can’t mess up. But when I saw everything that was going on with the judges, all my nerves turned into strong energy and excitement. I started going off on the song and getting comfortable.”

Making Guardino’s AGT experience even more special: He was able to watch all the action go down. “I would have never been able to see it before,” says Guardino, who was totally blind before a revolutionary treatment helped him regain most of his sight when he was 12.

Struggling with his vision impairment as a child, Guardino turned to melody. “Music was always my escape,” he says. “When I was dealing with my condition, it was a way to forget everything that was happening.”

His disability would end up amplifying his musical talent, too. “My hearing was strengthened because of my eyesight,” he says. “I hear music in a strong way. It’s always been there for me.”

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Having grown up in a musical family, Guardino already has an impressive musical background: In middle school, he performed in a circuit of talent shows on Long Island and sang multiple times at the Apollo Theater. He also performed a duet with Jordin Sparks in November at an event for Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthy America in Washington D.C.

Now he wants to take on songwriting, looking to his idol Stevie Wonder for inspiration. “I feel like I relate to him and what he goes through being blind and struggling with his sight,” he says. “I love his voice. It’s incredible.”

He also looks up to Cowell. While Mandel was the judge to press the golden buzzer for Guardino, immediately securing him a spot in the quarterfinals, Guardino says it was Cowell he was trying to impress. “I know Simon’s so honest and he’s going to tell me how it was, and if I wasn’t good he would tell me,” he explains. “But I’m really glad he liked me!”

Cowell’s October announcement that he would return to the show motivated Guardino to audition. “I’m a huge fan of America’s Got Talent and ever since Simon came on it was like, No way. It felt like I had to do this,” remembers Guardino, who went to the pre-round auditions after learning they were being held in New York City’s Queens borough in January. “It’s been my dream to go in front of him.”

After his successful Los Angeles audition, Guardino spotted Cowell outside the theater and walked up to him. “We’re going to be really good friends,” Guardino recalls hearing from Cowell, who hugged him and praised his vocal performance.

The compliments have poured in, with host Tyra Banks tweeting, “You just BLEW ME AWAY!” on Tuesday, and Howie Mandel singing his praises in a YouTube video. As Mandel pointed out, the last person to receive a Golden Buzzer from him was last year’s pre-teen contestant Grace VanderWaal, whom Guardino says he’d like to ask for performance tips as he preps for his next appearance on the show in early August. Right now, though, he’s not looking at it as a competition — “I’ll get way too nervous if I think of it that way,” he says — but rather just another great opportunity to perform.

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