Margate resident Antonia "Toni" Eisenstein is on a mission to live life to the fullest. At 77 years old, she recently traveled to China, because she has a fear flying. And on Sept. 29, she swam with sharks - not because she has a fear of sharks, but because she has a fear of water.

"Fear paralyzes, courage energizes; you have to face your fears," Eisenstein said.

Eisenstein's granddaughter, Jessica Sawyer, said that ever since Eisenstein's husband, Jack, a former superintendent of the Atlantic City school district, died in 2008, her grandmother has been approaching life with fervor.

"Monday would be our 35th anniversary. It's corny, but it's a way of giving him a present," Eisenstein said. "Also, if he's looking down to see if I'm OK, he might think I'm a little crazy."

Sawyer said that she thinks this is her grandmother's "craziest adventure yet."

The "Swim with Sharks" adventure is offered at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden. Eisenstein was to snorkel with sand tiger, sand bar, and nurse sharks.

"I think we're supposed to feed the sharks, I just hope they don't think I'm their food," Eisenstein said before she went.

"My husband is 31 and he's kind of a daredevil," Sawyer said. "We thought about him (swimming with sharks) but we went to the aquarium to schedule it and he took one look at them and was like 'no way.'"

But Eisenstein did not take on this endeavor because she wanted to show up her grandson-in-law. She decided to swim with sharks because, supposedly, Elizabeth Taylor did at age 74. Eisenstein said that if Taylor could do it, she could do it.

Eisenstein attended Atlantic City High School and was a school nurse there for about 30 years. Now, she works out at the Milton and Betty Katz Jewish Community Center in Margate, to which she can walk, almost every day. She is also a volunteer hospice nurse for Holy Redeemer.

To train for the big day, Eisenstein clocked many hours at the JCC aquatic center with the help of a former student who knew her during her school nurse days. Donna Innis, of Atlantic City, acted as Eisenstein's coach in preparation for the shark swim.

Innis teaches a water aerobics class at the JCC, and she said Eisenstein approached her one day after she was "coerced" to attend the class by another former teacher.

"She said, 'You're never going to believe this, but I have a deathly fear of water,'" Innis remembered of her encounter with Eisenstein. Innis then agreed to try to train Eisenstein for her shark swim.

Before training, Eisenstein said that she didn't even like to get her face wet, and wouldn't put her feet in the water at the beach.

"The first few times (training in water) she's having fits, and little by little she replaced the fear with technique," Innis said. "She'd go home and stick her face in the sink with her snorkel on."

Eisenstein's training paid off, as she said she was "glad she went through with the swim," she said after her adventure in the shark tank.

"I was such a nervous wreck" at the aquarium preparing to enter the shark realm, Eisenstein said. "But it was not as daunting as I thought it would be."

But she said that if given the chance, she would not repeat the experience.

"Somebody asked, 'Would you do it again?' and I said, 'No, I'm 77 years old, why would I repeat something I've already done?'" Eisenstein said. "You don't want to repeat - you want to gain new memories."

The courage that Eisenstein has shown in the face of her fears has inspired her family and Innis.

"(Eisenstein) is not just going through life, but my god, facing her fears," Innis said.

Contact Devin Loring:

609-463-6713