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Cancer survivor sticks to life of adventurer as sailor, trekker, writer, nurse

Adventurer Alder Allensworth, 60, was the first survivor of a rare form of optical cancer and was challenged by a student to quit wearing an eye patch to cover her scar. [Courtesy of Alder Allensworth]
Published Mar. 5, 2018

TAMPA — When Alder Allensworth achieves one audacious goal, she goes after another one.

So far, the 60-year-old cancer survivor has sailed 1,200 miles solo on a small boat, backpacked 500 miles alone on a pilgrimage from France to Spain, become a registered nurse, written an award-winning book, and worked with a sailing foundation for disabled veterans.

"I've always had a zest for life," Allensworth said.

If anything, her zeal has grown since met death eye to eye and emerged with just one left.

Born into a military family at Camp LeJeune, N.C., Allensworth is the daughter of a Navy dentist who served in the White House during the Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson administrations.

Her mother was a coal miner's daughter raised in the mountains of Tennessee who rose from poverty to receive her college degree.

The family moved from city to city, and Allensworth graduated from high school in Scotland.

She received her bachelor's degree at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., and her master's degree in music at the University of Miami.

Then in 1990, at 33, she was diagnosed with a rare cancer known as adenoid cystic carcinomain her left tear gland.

She was the only survivor of the disease at the time, but lost her eye to it.

She rallied her spiritual energies and sought new ways to overcome the disability, returning to work as a music therapist and pondering life with an eye patch.

Next she headed south to Key Largo to become a dive instructor, teaching music to young students and working with therapy groups that used dolphins.

After two years, Allensworth once again packed her bags and returned to the Tampa Bay area to do music therapy with at-risk children.

An encounter with a student at that time changed her life. It came as she tried to help the student overcome scars from a crisis.

"I will not be ashamed of my scars," the student said, "if you take off the eye patch and not be ashamed of yours."

Now she only wears it during festive events like Tampa's Gasparilla festival.

She learned from her father early how to sail.

In 2000, a sailing program asked her to take a 12-foot dinghy named Prevail 2,000 miles to raise money and awareness for sailors with disabilities. She accepted the challenge. CNN chronicled the journey down the Gulf of Mexico, around the Keys and up the Atlantic until the trip ended after 1,200 miles at Moorhead, N.C.

"I stopped the trip early as I realized I needed to return to my community and start a community sailing program for people with disabilities," Allensworth said.

When she returned home she joined a group of like-minded friends and in 2001, formed the private, nonprofit Sailability Greater Tampa Bay, helping people with disabilities learn to sail on their own.

At the time, the special boats they needed were being made in Australia and would cost $25,000.

Allensworth took the CNN video and got the okay from the city for of Clearwater to use the sailing center on Sand Key for the community sailing program. She got donations from local organizations to buy the first six boats.

During this time, Allensworth met and married disabilities advocate Ben Ritter.

Life took a twist in 2003 when her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. With her father, became a caregiver. Her mother died a few years later, then her father needed her full-time care. She provided it until he died 2017.

During this time, she still managed to obtain a degree in nursing. She also used her time off the road to write her memoirs.

Then again, she took up her adventurous ways.

She tackled the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James — the 500-mile religious pilgrimage that takes participants from St. Jean Pied-du-Port in France, westward across the Pyrenees Mountains to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.

"I built incredible friendships as I walked with others," she said. "We ended up calling ourselves a Camino family."

Along her journeys, she met sailor and former News Channel 8 anchor Bob Hite.

"Alder's a remarkable woman," Hite said, "who has taken on many challenges and still remains one of the most modest and humble individuals I've ever known."

The memoir, Prevail: Celebrate the Journey, was awareded a 2017 book contract through the Richter Publishing 2017 Writing Contest. The book was published in February and is available on Amazon.

She is also about to start her first job in nursing.

Said her husband, Ben Ritter: "Never a boring moment when living with Alder."

Contact Mike Merino at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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