Blind woman celebrates 50th birthday with first skydive

Posted: June 24, 2013 by JonoShmono "SykOse. Live. Extreme." in Air, Sky diving
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‘If I can do this, maybe others would be inspired not to let barriers or fears stop them from doing what they want to do,’ says Leona McKenna, of Augusta

Leona McKenna chose to go skydiving Saturday to mark her 50th birthday, which is Monday, and bubbled over with enthusiasm about it.

Augusta resident Leona McKenna, who is blind, went skydiving on Saturday in Lebanon to celebrate her 50th birthday. McKenna made the tandem jump with instructor Tony Hays of Skydive New England.

“It just makes you feel so alive,” she said on Sunday. “I didn’t know if I would reach 50, and I think I want to celebrate every year with a jump.”

McKenna listened as a video replayed the experience she had Saturday at SkyDive New England in the town of Lebanon.

Blind for more than 20 years as a result of the diabetes she’s suffered since age 8, McKenna always has been adventurous.

“If you have a fear, face it and go for it. Life is way too short, live it,” McKenna said, sitting at her kitchen table, her pet dog Patches clinging to her shoulder.

McKenna got her skydiving idea from friends Debbie and Bo Davis of Buxton, who are recreational jumpers. They went along with her Saturday as McKenna did a tandem skydive with tandem instructor Tony Hays.

“It was awesome,” McKenna said. “I can’t explain it except to say you don’t even know you’re falling out of a plane. It just feels like you’re in space with a lot of wind rushing by until the canopy opens, and then there’s silence.”

McKenna got to free-fall twice because the main chute got tangled and wouldn’t fully open, so the instructor had to use a reserve chute.

Tony Hays didn’t tell her that until afterward.

“The instructor tells you what he’s going to do,” she said, adding that he reinforces it by tapping her arm or her leg.

“When we landed, he said, ‘Put your legs up,’ and 10 or 15 seconds later we hit the surface and slid a short distance, and then we stopped.”

McKenna said being strapped close to the tandem instructor means that you get little choice when it comes time to jump from 14,000 feet.

“Once the doors open, you’re out within seconds. You can’t panic, you can’t say, no; you’re going.”

But she already had resolved to go despite her fear of heights and the unknown. “I’m going to face my fears and not let anything stand in my way,” she said. After surviving two heart attacks and bypass surgery in 2009, she said, “I feel great.”

Her husband, Russell Shea, however, was nervous about her feat.

“He didn’t want me to do it,” she said. “He was so afraid I was going to get hurt.”

Now on disability retirement after working for the state as a rehabilitation counselor, McKenna said she’s building a business as a inspirational and motivational speaker and was looking for something exciting she could talk about.

“It doesn’t seem to me I’ve done anything out of the ordinary,” she said. “If I can do this, maybe others would be inspired not to let barriers or fears stop them from doing what they want to do.”

McKenna has addressed a regional convention in Massachusetts and has done some motivational speaking at the University of Maine at Augusta‘s University College in Rockland. Her business card lists “Inspirations Thru My Eyes” and her e-mail as Inspirations1000@gmail.com.

She has been president of the Pine Tree Guide Dog users and is finishing an application for her third guide dog from Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, Inc., in Bloomfield, Conn. “I just love my German shepherds,” she said.

Her future dives will have to be tandem as well, McKenna said. “Not only will I do it again, if I could see, I’d probably be a fun jumper.”

Kelly Hays, tandem liaison for Skydive New England, said many people with a variety of disabilities have gone skydiving with the company, including a group of four vision-impaired people who did tandem dives last year.

“Your eyes are your tools,” she said.

For most people, the jump marks a special occasion.

“It’s on their bucket list or friends have done it, or just for the adrenaline and excitement,” Hays said. “Some people are afraid of heights and they want to get over it,”

She said the skydiving operation, which runs seven days a week accommodate up to 120 on a busy weekend. More information is available at http://www.skydivenewengland.com.

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