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Bolingbrook Man Takes To The Skies To Feel Free From MS

By Kim Bellware in News on Sep 7, 2012 7:20PM

John Mohler (top) with his jump instructor Eric Bickel (photo via John Mohler)

After jumping from a plane at 14,000 feet above the ground, there's a point where the parachute opens, and John Mohler Jr. slows from a free fall to a gentle float under canopy, and spots a little black target on the ground below. He'll point to the target and issue a single request to his jump instructor:

"Keep me out of that thing as long as you can."

"When you're up there, you feel so much freedom; you feel untethered, in all directions," says Mohler, 47. "Especially after they pull the cord and you're under canopy, it's so peaceful."

The target Mohler points to is his wheelchair, and the freedom he feels is the few moments where he can forget about the multiple sclerosis (MS) that has wracked his body for the past 20 years. The Bolingbrook resident was fit and active before what he describes as "one of the worst cases [of MS] you can have" set in, leaving him quadriplegic.

"I always wanted to skydive, even before I got sick," says Mohler "After I got sick, it was assumed to be out of the question. I even asked one of my neurologists, and he said no. He just scoffed and hardly even answered me. 'Banish the thought.'"

It was a setback, but Mohler wasn't deterred. He started looking around, "for interest's sake," and came across Dave Perez, a trustee for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Greater Illinois chapter who had been organizing an annual "boogie"—now in it's 15th year—to raise money for MS research.

"It was basically four guys with MS," says Mohler "I just had to find the right doctor who would sign off on it. When I saw the chance to get out of my wheelchair and fly 14,000 feet above it, be away from this machine, I went for it. As much as the machine is a Godsend, you want valuable time to get away from it."

Having jumped six times, Mohler favors the nearby Chicagoland Skydiving Center in Rochelle, Ill., for its instructors who have been trained to jump with MS sufferers.

"There's a thing with MS called muscle tone, where your muscles will involuntarily tighten," says Mohler "You can flail, but mostly you're unwieldy. The guys at Chicagoland Skydiving have learned—been specially trained—to deal with this. They're aces." He adds, "It's a titanic effort for whichever jump instructor that has to bring me up."

His free fall takes some tweaking, too. Jumpers tend to sprawl, belly-flop or flying squirrel style, during the roughly 60 seconds in free fall.

"Instead of going spread eagle, they go the opposite direction and kind of truss me up like a pot roast," says Mohler "I'm tied up, it's almost like an S&M thing. But [instructors] Nate [Dexter] or Eric [Bickel], the guys helping me, are doing all the work. I'm just smiling. I love the airtime."

Through the MS skydiving fundraisers, Mohler has made friends with other jumpers from across the country, and even convinced his siblings to jump. Proud that the fundraiser has grown larger and more successful each year, Mohler's perhaps most proud of "challenging how others think of disabled people."

Acknowledging everything from increased attention to this year's Paralympic games to higher-profile disabled characters on popular shows like Glee, Mohler thinks disabled people are being seeing move inclusively than before. Of reaction his own jumps inspire, he says "I'm a pretty tall guy—I'm 6'2"—and they haul me up to the fuselage. I come down 15 minutes later and it's always the same: People think "wow! If he went, I can do it."

Skydiving will stay Mohler's number one adrenaline rush for now, he says he's looking into getting a private pilot's license, and won't rule out other forms of ("legal" he points out with a laugh) thrill-seeking.

"I'd be into extreme sports if I were up out of the wheelchair," says Mohler. "I'm always open to new things, I'm all about open doors, so if something else came up, I'd try it. But skydiving... I'm going to keep doing this."

The 15th Annual Skydiving for MS Boogie is Sept. 8-9 at the Chicagoland Skydiving Center in Rochelle, Ill.