The Worst Day Of My Life Was When A 102-Year-Old Put Me To Shame
It’s not every day a centenarian puts you to shame, but it happened to me when I was discussing skydiving with Adelaide’s Irene O’Shea, now 102 years old.
She was nonchalant about it. I was petrified.
I first encountered Irene watching the ABC’s Centenarian themed ‘You Can’t Ask That.’ In passing she mentioned that, for her 100th birthday, she’d thrown herself out of a plane for the first time in her life. As you do.
She said it with her trademark full-throttled chuckle: “I loved it and can’t wait to do it again!” It was a throwaway comment, mentioned in passing. Then she moved on.
Immediately, the journalist in me stirred. She wants to do it again. Her second skydive, aged 101!
I spoke to the incredible Irene as she was planning her second jump for July 9, 2017 when she’d be 101 and 39 days -- exactly a day older than the record holder for the world’s oldest skydiver, Brit Verdun Hayes. She was so hoping to bring the record to Australia.
As we chatted, I mentioned to her that I did a skydive the previous year and I was very scared. Her response still makes me smile: “Oh I wasn’t scared at all!”
That’s how you get shamed up by a centenarian. But “very scared” was an understatement.
I’ve never known fear like it. It was probably the worst day of my adult life.
I was talked into doing it by a friend who’d split from her boyfriend; they were due to jump together. I had nightmares daily in the week before the big day.
As we ascended I pretended we were going on a package holiday to Majorca; a fantasy that came crashing down as the side of the plane opened and the whooooosh of the air filled my ears with noise, my body with chills and my heart with pure terror.
I hadn’t planned what to do when the fantasy subsided. I froze in sheer panic. I had to be dragged to the door. The sight of my tiny, tiny feet dangling over the edge as blue sky then a bed of cloud sat below me will torment me till the day I die.
There wasn’t a single part of it I enjoyed. People talk of the rush, of feeling high for hours afterwards. I just felt exhausted from the terror.
The Instagram positive mantras say it's good to test your limits, but it's also good to know them. I'd never do it again, and if I could go back in time, I wouldn't do it! That terror was overwhelming.
God only knows how Irene keeps going back for more. I just assume that age has eroded all her fear and gifted her with that characteristic nonchalance. She was also doing it for a deeper reason -- her daughter Shelagh (Irene has a son, five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren) died of Motor Neurone Disease aged 67 so Irene wanted to raise money for the Motor Neurone Disease research charity in memory of her. She wiped away tears as she told me that.
But as I spoke to Irene, I realised she was no average centenarian. She told me that, aged 101, she still drove a “sports car” (it has ‘sports’ written on the side!), enjoyed a ride on a Harley Davidson, read without glasses and lived alone, unsupported.
Irene insisted there was no secret to her youthful energy, but her granddaughter Emma hinted at one; Irene used to help out at her local aged care home in her 80s, and would speak about “going to help the old people” -- many of whom were younger than her! The woman never saw herself as old.
I went back to do a second feature on Irene as she was due to smash that record. But the second skydive got postponed -- first because Irene had a hip replaced, then because inclement winds which postponed the dive no less than five times!
Then something galling happened. As Adelaide’s winds blew, the world record was snatched away from her by American Kenneth Meyer, aged 102 and 172 days. Irene still jumped nonetheless, her second time as a centenarian, aged 101.
Nevertheless, she persisted. In shaky handwriting in Irene’s calendar on December 9, 2018 was the word “skydive” -- she’d be 102 years and 193 days old -- 21 days older than Mr Meyer when he completed his record-breaking jump. I couldn’t believe it. She was going up a third time. I’m still reeling from my one time.
And she did it! Bringing that world record of the world’s oldest skydiver to Australia, on her third jump as a centenarian at the end of last year.
Even though the feat itself achieved nothing, my own skydive proved to me I can push myself beyond my perceived limits and tolerate terror if I have to! It’s a regret for sure, but a happy regret -- if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron.
Some white-knuckle experiences are best left to the adrenaline junkies -- even if they're 70 years older than you!