Tim Ryan stepped out into a dark, snow-strewn night in February 2017, an exciting and crazy idea forming in his mind. He was going to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
More people have been into outer space and climbed Mount Everest than have rowed across the Atlantic. Yet Ryan knew it was possible. He had just stepped out of a screening of “Four Mums in a Boat”—a documentary showing how four middle-aged English women who met in a carpool lane at their kids’ schools ended up rowing across the Atlantic together.
“As I stepped out into the snowy night after the show, I thought, ‘Heck, if four English women can do it . . . ’ Turns out those ladies are really quite extraordinary,” Ryan says. “From that moment, I knew I would compete in [the Atlantic Challenge].”
All Ryan needed was a boat, a team, and a cause that would inspire four men to row nearly 3,000 miles nonstop through heat, waves, and whatever fury Mother Nature might throw at them.
He instantly knew the man he needed to call: Alan Alderman.
“I’ve known Alan since around 2000,” Ryan says. “Ours is an unlikely friendship, what with a Latter-day Saint and a guy who owns 12 sports bars.” Alan Alderman was a born-and-raised Latter-day Saint working at a bank in Utah when Ryan first met him. “We never socialized outside of an occasional work-related luncheon or the like,” Ryan says. “Yet, we have a super strong bond. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for him, and I gather he would do the same for me.”
When Alderman was diagnosed with ALS in 2001, Ryan became “one of my biggest supporters,” Alderman says. For the past 17 years, Ryan has supported Alderman’s fundraising efforts as he’s raised over $1 million for ALS research.
So when Ryan was searching for a charitable cause to raise awareness for while undertaking the Atlantic Challenge, Alderman instantly came to mind.
“Tim contacted me hoping that I would help him with the fundraising and the charitable component of the race,” Alderman says. “He asked me what I thought about the idea . . . and then asked me if I would help him. I said, ‘I believe that it is a fantastic fundraising idea, and yes, I will help you. But my help comes under one condition: I am on that boat and I am a part of the team.”
“He swallowed hard and probably thought, ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ Alderman continues. “And that is how Row4ALS was formed.” Row4ALS is a nonprofit organization with the aim to inspire ALS survivors to keep fighting and to raise money for ALS research in the hopes of helping find a cure.
Ryan, Alderman, and their team have a unique way to raise awareness for this important cause.
This December, these five men will set out from the Canary Islands in a 28-foot long, 70-inch wide boat to row 3,000 miles nonstop to Antigua—a trek that will take anywhere from 40 to 60 days. And among them will be 17-year ALS survivor Alan Alderman.
A Life-Changing Diagnosis
Shortly after meeting Tim Ryan, Alderman began noticing a few unusual symptoms in 2001. “I started noticing that I was having trouble speaking. My voice was a lot more monotone. I was slurring some words,” Alderman says. “Also, I started having trouble swallowing.”
Alderman tried to shrug off or ignore the symptoms for six months, until he finally realized he needed to see his doctor. That one checkup led to dozens of visits with pulmonologists, speech therapists, neurologists, and other specialists over a three-month period.
“It all culminated on one fall afternoon in late September when, after running a few tests, the doctor said he needed to step out of the room for a minute,” Alderman remembers. “He was probably only gone a few minutes, but to me it seemed like a few months. When he came back in he sat down on the little round stool that they have in their examination rooms, pulled right in front of me, put his hands right on my knees, and said, ‘Alan, I believe that you have ALS.’ . . . When he said [those] words, that changed everything.”
He continues, “I knew a little about ALS at the time—now I know a lot more than I care to know—but I asked him, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ He said, ‘Well, we do not know what causes ALS. We don't really have any effective treatments. There is only one type of medication and it only slows the progress by a few months. But what we do know is that the nerve cells in your body called motor neurons are dying, and as they continue to die, then you will lose the ability to move whatever muscle that motor neuron controls. They will continue to do that until they affect the muscles that control your breathing and when that happens . . . then you die.”
At that moment, the 40-year-old father of three was told he had only two to five years left to live.
“I was in a career that I loved. My wife at the time and I had just bought a brand new home in South Jordan and moved our family from Southern California. My kids were young; they were 9, 8, and 5 at the time. And everything seemed to be going great,” Alderman says. “Here this guy was telling me that I had a disease that was going to rob me of my ability to move, eventually kill me, and that there was nothing that he or any other doctor could do for me. My whole world turned upside down in that one moment.”
For weeks, Alderman wrestled with the diagnosis, his faith, and his Heavenly Father. “I was angry. I was discouraged. I felt hopeless. I felt helpless,” Alderman says. “For months after my diagnosis, I remember pleading with my Father in Heaven, ‘Don't let this be ALS. Let it be something else. Let it be something that they can give me a shot for or a pill.’”
Alderman now recognizes this struggle as an experience shared by humanity—the pleading and seeking to know why, the shrinking from the road ahead. “Even our Savior—the only perfect being who has ever walked the earth, the literal Son of our Father in Heaven—even He was overwhelmed with the physical and emotional challenges. What did He say in Gethsemane? ‘Father remove this cup. Nevertheless thy will be done,’” Alderman says. “I am not comparing myself to my Savior in any stretch of the imagination, but I have said those words plenty of times over the years.”
And through his pleading, praying, and faith, Alderman has come to know that the Lord can bring light and hope even into our darkest challenges: “I was in a dark spot for a while. But then I decided, ‘Alan, it is what it is and you have a choice to make. ALS will probably take your life, but whether or not it destroys your life is up to you.’ I decided it would not destroy my life.”
Defying the Odds
Alderman’s doctor’s prognosis was wrong. Seventeen years later, Alderman is still living a life filled with challenges, the grace of God, and beauty that he could have never imagined before.
“I have this very rare form of ALS, and it is slow-progressing,” Alderman says. “No one in the medical or scientific field can tell you why I am alive right now. But to me, the only reason is that my Father in Heaven still needs me here and there is still some work for me to do.”
In addition to traveling the world raising funds for ALS, Alderman spends his time mentoring and supporting others who have been recently diagnosed with the disease.
“Right after I was diagnosed, I met a man, [Carter], who had had ALS 12 years, and he was the sage of ALS in this area. He became my mentor, and I love and miss him every day,” Alderman says. “He said one time, ‘Would I have liked to not have had ALS? Oh yeah, you bet. But if I had to give up all that I experienced and learned from ALS to not have it, then I would take ALS.’”
When Alderman heard this, he thought his mentor was crazy, but now, Alderman echoes these same words. “Now I understand what he meant. If I had to give up the experiences that I have had over the past 17 years—if I had to give up the friends and relationships that I have known, if I had to give up the testimony that I have gained, the fullness where I have really felt one with my Father in Heaven because I had ALS . . . I would not give it up.”
Alderman continues, “I tell people all the time that every morning that I wake up is going to be a great day. And the morning that I don't wake up—well that's a great day too. Since that day in September of 2001, my life has been challenging, but also very fulfilling and very fun.”
It’s Alderman’s fortitude, resilience, and optimism that will help him and his teammates across an ocean.
Crossing the Atlantic
So what does it take to cross the Atlantic?
A good boat, for starters. And Row4ALS has a highly specialized, hand-molded infused carbon fiber one. “These boats are virtually unsinkable,” Alderman says, adding with a laugh that he knows that’s what they said about the Titanic before it sank on its maiden voyage, but he has faith their boat can get them across the Atlantic in one piece.
A strong team. With Tim Ryan as their team captain, Alan Alderman as their chief inspirational officer, Ted Waldo as the skipper, Dale Smith and Brian Armstrong as rowers, and Steve Sawaya as their land support and technical manager, the team is ready for the upcoming journey.
The proper equipment. Once the boat leaves the Canary Islands, Alderman and his teammate must make it on their own through rain, storms, or blistering sunshine. Any assistance will result in immediate disqualification, which means these five men need to propel a 400-pound boat laden with 60-days’ worth of food, navigational equipment, radios, satellite phones, life jackets, first aid equipment, and anything else they might need for a two-month trek across open water. In total, that's 3,500 pounds.
Training and experience. “Every participant in the Atlantic Challenge goes through extensive training,” Alderman explains. First aid certifications; sea survival, navigation, and seamanship courses; marine radio operator’s licenses; almost 100 logged hours rowing and practicing drills on the open water—it’s all a requirement. From the Puget Sound to the Great Salt Lake and Lake Washington to the Gulf of Mexico, Row4ALS has tested their boat in a number of conditions.
A good dose of reality. “Ninety percent of this trip will be a mind-bender,” Ryan says. “Sixty days in very tight quarters, with no personal space or down time will be the challenge on top of just existing in a harsh environment. Suffice it to say, pride and luxury are left on shore.”
He continues: “The conditions of life on a rowboat have really forced all of us through some, shall we say ‘social barriers or norms.’ There’s no personal space. So in that regard, it’s a big change to be helping your buddy off a toilet bucket or tracking his urine production. Most people, especially guys, get weirded out just putting sunscreen on their buddy’s back. This race takes it to a whole new level, but isn’t that the basis of being stripped down to raw survival? Unbreakable bonds are being formed.”
Tenacity. It’s little wonder that Alderman has been dubbed the chief inspiration officer—his teammates are utilizing the strengths he’s gained from a lifetime of overcoming challenges. “Alan contributes tremendously to the team. This is not a guy out for a ‘free ride,’ nor would the rest of us allow it,” Ryan says. “His determination and heart bring all of us to a higher level of performance. Never once have I seen self-pity or even expressions of physical pain, even though I know he has all the aches and pains the rest of us do. . . . I’ve literally seen the guy haul himself up three flights of stairs or pull his way out of a narrow hatch. It’s not always pretty, but it’s definitely inspirational. Our relationship has naturally gotten closer through this experience.”
Alderman adds, “I plan on rowing every time that my shift comes up.” That means that in alternating two to three hour shifts, Alderman plans to take his place at the oars and row—“24 hours a day, 7 days a week until we are done.”
Good chemistry. “You can imagine, you have [five] Type A personality men on this teeny boat, the tension is high, emotions kind of escalate, and you have to have the right kind of chemistry between everyone,” Alderman says. “They say that when you are done with the race, you and your teammates are either bonded forever or you never speak to each other again. I think we will be the former.”
The right mindset. “Certainly, we must all be a little imbalanced just to consider rowing across the Atlantic,” Ryan says. “I think we have chosen wisely and have an even-tempered, compatible crew that is aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and is prepared to deal with those.”
“The race is obviously physical, and we are training hard for that, but it is more in your head and in your heart than it is in your arms,” Alderman says.
Gospel Parallels in Crossing the Great Deep
Each member of the Row4ALS team has a different goal in mind for how long it will take them to cross the Atlantic. Alderman’s is the most optimistic. “I've always said 40 days,” Alderman says. “Where I got 40 days is that, isn't that how long Noah was on the water? [It was] how long it rained anyway. Forty days and forty nights.”
Alderman sees many parallels between this journey and the scriptures.
“I feel a little bit like Nephi,” he says. “When I went to my dad and mom and told them, you know, ‘We are going to build a boat and we are going to cross an ocean.’ They looked at me and said, ‘You're nuts. You’re crazy.’ And I thought, ‘I will know a little bit more about how Nephi felt and what he experienced.’”
Building a specialized boat to cross the vast ocean helps Alderman identify with Noah, Lehi, Nephi, and the Jaredites. Though he wishes he could see the finger of the Lord, as the Brother of Jared did, that hasn’t stopped Alderman from seeing the hand of God in his life.
As the race organizers provide advice for the teams preparing for this 3,000-mile undertaking, Alderman sees how his two-year mission to Japan and the gospel have prepared him for what lies ahead. The emotional struggle of saying good bye to friends and family for a two-month trek over the holidays will not be new to Alderman, who knows what it feels like dropping off love ones and being dropped off as a missionary at the MTC. “I think some of those things, like saying goodbye, will be a lot easier because I have experienced them on a mission,” Alderman says. “There will be a lot of the same emotion.”
While some of his fellow teammates are anxious about the monotony of the trip ahead, Alderman is excited by the prospect.
“I am going to have my scriptures so I can listen to them when I need to and want to, but really, that's one of the things I am looking forward to—to get away from all of the technology and to be able to be there out in the middle of the ocean with only myself and my thoughts and my Father in Heaven,” Alderman says. “Heavenly Father and I can spend some real quality time and quantity time while I am out there. . . . And I know that I am going to need Him.”
He continues, “The only reason in my mind that I am here is because of the grace of my God. I've seen countless of my friends pass away from this horrible disease, and I do not know why I am here, but I am glad that I am. When I was diagnosed, my oldest daughter was 9. Based on the averages, I did not think that I would ever see her go on a date. I did not think that I would ever see her drive. And my 5-year-old daughter at the time, I would be lucky if I were to see her get baptized, let alone to have the physical ability to baptize her and any voice left to confirm her. I have been able to do that. I have been able to see two of my kids get married. I have been able to see the birth of my granddaughter and to be able to love her and have a relationship with her, so I think that time [on the ocean] will be a time of reflection, and I will be able to commune with my Father in Heaven and thank Him for all that I have and then maybe get a little bit of a glimpse into what He wants me to do and what I need to do while I am still here.”