102-year-old woman skydives to raise awareness for the disease that killed her daughter

A parachute is seen as a skydiver lands on his feet during a canopy piloting competition in Palatka, Fla., on March 9, 2008.   (Daron Dean/The New York Times)
A parachute is seen as a skydiver lands on his feet during a canopy piloting competition in Palatka, Fla., on March 9, 2008. (Daron Dean/The New York Times)Daron Dean/The New York Times

A 102-year-old Australian great-grandmother steadied herself on a cane as she walked to an airplane, then stepped inside, flew up to 14,000 feet - and jumped out.

Irene O'Shea safely landed her tandem parachute jump Sunday, Dec. 8, and said it was similar to the two other jumps she's made, when she was 100 and 101.

"I felt normal, about the same" as during previous jumps, she told the Australian newspaper the Advertiser about her parachuting in Langhorne Creek, a town in South Australia state.

O'Shea has been jumping out of planes to raise awareness and money for motor neuron disease, a degenerative condition that killed her daughter, Shelagh FitzHenry, at 67. In the United States, the disease is known as Lou Gehrig's disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

O'Shea's bravery is a testament to both a mother's unending love and bottomless grief.

"I lost my daughter to that terrible disease 10 years ago, and I miss her," O'Shea told the Advertiser.

Mike FitzHenry, Shelagh FitzHenry's husband, told the news site that the family spent tens of thousands of dollars on stem cell treatment in China, to no avail.

"It was tormenting," he said.

Hoping to help find a cure for the disease, O'Shea's skydive last year raised about $8,600 (12,000 Australian dollars), and she's aiming to raise another about $7,200 from her most recent jump. The money will go to the Motor Neurone Disease Association of South Australia, according to a GoFundMe page set up to collect donations.

O'Shea is also vying to claim the designation of oldest female tandem sky jumper in the world, knowing that the elder competition might get some buzz for her cause. She applied for the designation after her jump Sunday, and might end up being the oldest tandem jumper in the world, male or female.

Guinness World Records recognizes only oldest male and female in the category, rather than the oldest person, said Rachel Gluck, spokeswoman for the group.

The title for oldest female tandem jumper is held by Estrid Geertsen, who in 2004 made a 13,000-foot jump in Denmark when she was 100 years old and 60 days, Gluck said. Geertsen has since died.

News accounts show that the oldest male tandem jumper is 102-year-old Ken Meyer of New Jersey, who made his jump last year. His achievement is under review by Guinness World Records staff, Gluck said.

If O'Shea is certified in the female category, she will also best Meyer, as she was 102 years and 193 days - three weeks older than Meyer when he made his jump.

O'Shea made her achievement with paramedic Jed Smith, 24, the instructor who took her on her other two jumps, according to the website for SA Skydiving, the company that took O'Shea on her adventures.

"Irene and Jed completed a smooth, beautiful freefall, falling at about 137 mph through wispy clouds, before a smooth parachute opening," reads the website.

Her family was there to cheer her on. But they did not always support her daredevil stunts, according to the website Now To Love.

When O'Shea told her family - a son, five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren - about her idea to jump out of an airplane, they did not support it.

"My initial reaction was, 'ah no,'" O'Shea's granddaughter Emma Skully told the site.

But once Skully learned what was behind it, she came around, saying she didn't want to get between her grandmother and the cause that is so close to her heart.

"I was apprehensive about her doing it at 100. It seemed to come out of nowhere," Skully said. "But she said it was something she'd always wanted to do, and I was proud of her courage."

O'Shea is healthy, living in the same home she moved into when she arrived in Australia from England in 1974, according to the Advocate. She drives her own car and does not need reading glasses.

Even though it looks as if she'll be awarded the oldest tandem jumper honor, she's not resting on her laurels.

"Possibly I will jump next year," she told the Advocate. "And if I live long enough, I'll jump at 105."



This article was written by Allison Klein, a reporter for The Washington Post.