Kevin Riordan: Out of his wheelchair, skydiving for fun and for a cause

Fred Schwartz (below), who has MS, skydives with Peter Rovnan. "I want to inspire people with disabilities,"says Schwartz, who raised $2,500 with this jump.
Fred Schwartz (below), who has MS, skydives with Peter Rovnan. "I want to inspire people with disabilities,"says Schwartz, who raised $2,500 with this jump. (DAVID PANCAKE)
Posted: November 13, 2011

Fred Schwartz can't walk, but he can fly.

He jumps out of planes to help fund research into multiple sclerosis, the neurological disease that put him in a wheelchair.

"Skydiving is something I can do to raise money and awareness," Schwartz, 42, says, preparing to jump at Freefall Adventures, in Williamstown.

"I want to inspire people with disabilities," adds the Burlington Township resident.

Besides, he insists, stepping out of a plane at 13,500 feet while harnessed to a skydiving instructor is fun.

"Your mind goes blank when you're falling out of the sky," Schwartz says.

I'll take his word for it. He made his first jump in 2010 and raised $4,000 for the California-based Myelin Repair Foundation. He made his most recent jump Tuesday; it has so far netted $2,500.

MS is an incurable autoimmune disease that destroys myelin, a material that protects nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Loss of mobility is one of many results, none of them pleasant.

About 400,000 Americans are living with the disease. Schwartz, who has been active with the foundation for six years, grew up in Moorestown and was an accountant working in Maryland when his first symptoms erupted in 1994. He was only 24.

"All of a sudden I couldn't hear out of my right ear," he recalls.

An avid golfer who also enjoyed playing volleyball, Schwartz, who is single, was found to have the progressive form of MS.

He fought depression, and isolation, as he lost the ability to work full time and became dependent on a wheelchair. But he has held on to his independence, living alone, working part time from home as a tax preparer, and driving around in a van equipped with hand controls.

Schwartz is also an active Republican. He has sought elective office several times in Burlington Township, most recently as an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 2010.

After the rough-and-tumble of politics, no wonder skydiving looks easy.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say I had some fear," he says. "But it wasn't enough to stop me from doing it."

He got the idea after seeing a TV news report about skydiving for charity.

Inside the hangar, Schwartz meets up with skydiving instructor Peter Rovnan, with whom he jumped last year.

"I really can't stand," he says, as Rovnan lifts him into a special tandem harness.

A native of Slovakia, Rovnan lives in Williamstown not far from the Crosskeys Airport, where Freefall Adventures operates what it describes as one of the largest skydiving facilities on the East Coast.

Outside, friends get ready to watch Schwartz take the leap.

Sondra Lippi met Schwartz, a convert to Catholicism, at St. Peter's Church in Merchantville.

"I'm so proud of him," she says. "The way he gets around in that wheelchair is amazing."

Matt Haag, who has known Schwartz since they attended Moorestown High in the late 1980s, says his friend "has an appreciation of life."

If he can be cured, "I'd mow my own lawn," Schwartz says. "I'd be able to pick things up. I'd be able to walk around the block."

There are high fives and thumbs up all around as Schwartz is lifted into the plane, a King Air C90 piloted by John Snyder, of Williamstown.

About seven minutes after takeoff, a dozen skydivers are in the air, first free-falling, then parachuting, to earth.

Schwartz and Rovnan descend in tandem through a magnificent blue sky, touching down as the parachute billows up around them.

Schwartz is beaming.

"Wow," he says. "The wind. The rush. The adrenaline."

Unharnessed, he is put back in the wheelchair.

More high fives. More thumbs up as Haag slowly pushes his pal off the field toward the circle of friends waiting on the deck outside the hangar.

The smile won't leave Schwartz's face.

"Man," he says. "You should try it."

I couldn't possibly, I say to myself.

I'm not half as brave as you are.


Contact columnist Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com,

or @inqkriordan on Twitter.

 

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