101 years old – and jump­ing for joy

Irene O’Shea drives a “sports car”, en­joys a ride on a Har­ley-David­son and, at 101, is the old­est fe­male tan­dem sky­diver in the world. Gary Nunn dis­cov­ers the se­cret to her joie de vivre.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - NEWS -

Irene O’Shea jumped out of a plane to cel­e­brate her 100th birthday and she liked it so much, she did it again. That sec­ond sky­dive, on Septem­ber 17 this year, when she was 101 years and 110 days old, cat­a­pulted her into the Guin­ness World Records as the old­est fe­male tan­dem sky­diver in the world.

“It was cold,” she says, chuck­ling, “but I kept my eyes open. And break­ing the record feels just great.”

The first thing you no­tice about Irene is her laugh. It’s loud, hearty and fills the room. She laughs even louder when dis­cussing her favourite things, which are far from rain­drops on roses or whiskers on kit­tens. They’re more likely to be the smell of petrol from a speed­ing Har­leyDavid­son and the in­tense gust of wind against her softly lined pink cheeks as she hurls her­self out of an aero­plane at 15,000 feet.

When Irene first an­nounced her parachut­ing plans, her fam­ily (a son, Michael, plus five grand­chil­dren and 11 great-grand­chil­dren) was shocked. “My ini­tial re­ac­tion was, ah no,” ad­mits Irene’s grand­daugh­ter, Emma Skully, who is 44. “I was ap­pre­hen­sive about her do­ing it at 100. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but she said it was some­thing she’d al­ways wanted to do and I was proud of her courage.”

Then Irene ex­plained that there was a deeper rea­son for the sky­dive. “It was for She­lagh,” she says.

Back in 2007, Irene re­ceived dev­as­tat­ing news. Her daugh­ter, She­lagh, who was then 67, had been di­ag­nosed with ter­mi­nal Mo­tor Neu­rone Dis­ease. “It was the most ter­ri­ble day when she was di­ag­nosed... It makes me want to cry,” says Irene and, for the first time to­day, her smile falls and she weeps qui­etly. “Af­ter

She­lagh told me the dread­ful news, as soon as she went home, I rushed next door, threw my­self into my neigh­bour’s arms and cried and cried.”

Mike FitzHenry, She­lagh’s hus­band, says that he too was “in ab­so­lute dis­be­lief. I didn’t want to ac­cept it. I al­ways be­lieved a mir­a­cle might hap­pen. We spent $33,000 on stem cell treat­ment

in China. We reached out to char­i­ties. It was tor­ment­ing,” he says.

The mir­a­cle never came. Over 18 months, She­lagh’s health de­te­ri­o­rated. By the end, Irene says, “she couldn’t talk or eat. She could barely walk. It was such a long time to watch her suf­fer. I’ll never for­get it or get over it. I think about her most of the time.”

Irene’s dare­devil stunts were de­vised to help fund re­search for a cure, “so no­body has to live through what my daugh­ter did”. Her first sky­dive raised $7350 and five cents. “Don’t for­get the five cents,” she chimes in, laugh­ing. She gath­ered an­other group of spon­sors for her sec­ond sky jump.

“When she an­nounced the sec­ond jump,” Emma says, “I wasn’t sur­prised. As soon as she dis­cov­ered there was a world record to beat, it was on!”

The record for the world’s old­est sky­diver was held by Bri­tish D-Day vet­eran, Ver­dun Hayes, who made the jump ear­lier this year, aged 101 and 38 days, with three gen­er­a­tions of his fam­ily. Irene cal­cu­lated that, on July 9, she would be 101 and 39 days and booked her sec­ond sky­dive for that date. She was all set to be­come the first ever woman to hold the ti­tle, but cir­cum­stances con­spired against her. First, Irene had a hip re­place­ment. Un­de­terred, she in­sisted that her doc­tor clear her to jump the minute she was fit. Then, her sky­dive was post­poned due to high winds in Adelaide – not once, but five sep­a­rate times. Irene was pa­tient and per­sis­tent. “It was dis­ap­point­ing af­ter each build-up,” she ad­mits, “but I just had to ac­cept it – I can’t con­trol the wind!”

Then some­thing galling hap­pened. As Adelaide’s dangerous winds blew on un­abated, an Amer­i­can man, Ken­neth Meyer, snatched the record aged 102 years and 172 days. Irene shrugs and in­sists she is happy to be the old­est woman sky­diver in the world. How­ever, in shaky hand­writ­ing in Irene’s diary, on the page for Sun­day, De­cem­ber 2, 2018, is the word “sky­dive”. Irene will then be 102 years and 186 days old, and is de­ter­mined to be ready to have an­other at­tempt at set­ting the world record.

Mean­while, she con­tin­ues to live in­de­pen­dently in her own home, to read with­out glasses and to drive her “sports car”. It’s ac­tu­ally a Ford Fi­esta, but “it has two stripes that say ‘sports’ on the side, so I can call it a sports car,” she says with a grin.

“Any­one who’s been in the car with Nan,” Emma adds, “will tell you her car has two speeds – fast and faster.”

And back when she was 92, Irene sad­dled up as a pas­sen­ger on a Har­ley-David­son, “some­thing I’d al­ways wanted to do,” she says. “I love mo­tor­bikes, but I could never af­ford one when I was younger.”

Every­one asks Irene for the se­cret to her en­ergy and joie de vivre. She in­sists there isn’t one, but Emma hints at a clue: “Nan used to vol­un­teer at an old peo­ple’s home in Gawler [South Aus­tralia]. She’d drive half an hour to visit the res­i­dents and serve them tea. She’d say, ‘I’m off to care for the old peo­ple!’ The thing is, Nan was well into her 80s when she did this. Some res­i­dents were younger than her! She’s never seen her­self as an old per­son. I think that’s her se­cret.”

“As soon as she dis­cov­ered there was a world record, it was on!”

Irene com­pleted her record-break­ing sky­dive with Jed Smith, who was her part­ner for her first jump, aged 100, in 2016.

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