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.
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.