Par­a­lympian who died on solo Pa­cific chal­lenge

The Irish Times - - Obituaries - An­gela Mad­sen

Born: May 10th, 1960 Died: June 21st, 2020

An­gela Mad­sen was a healthy ma­rine play­ing bas­ket­ball when she suf­fered a se­ri­ous back in­jury in 1981. When she had back surgery 12 years later, at 33, she woke up paral­ysed from the waist down. She lost her job, her part­ner cleaned out her bank ac­count and left her, and she lived on the streets, sleep­ing in her wheel­chair in front of Dis­ney­land.

But her story did not end there. A nat­u­ral ath­lete, she even­tu­ally took up row­ing. She started win­ning gold medals at world cham­pi­onships and com­peted in the Par­a­lympics. She set her sights on the oceans. She con­quered the At­lantic (twice) and the In­dian Ocean and cir­cum­nav­i­gated Bri­tain, all with part­ners or a team.

In 2013, she at­tempted her biggest chal­lenge: row­ing the Pa­cific solo, from Cal­i­for­nia to Hawaii. But she got caught in a fe­ro­cious storm and had to be res­cued. The next year, she made the trip with a part­ner. But she yearned to do it alone.

Fi­nally, this spring, she set out by her­self, leav­ing Ma­rina del Rey in Los An­ge­les on April 24th in her 20ft state-of-the-art fi­bre­glass cap­sule, Row of Life. She planned to land at the Hawaii Yacht Club in late July.

Mad­sen aimed to be the first rower with para­ple­gia, the first openly gay ath­lete and, at 60, the old­est woman to do make the jour­ney.

She was two months in and half­way to Hawaii when she dis­cov­ered a prob­lem with the hard­ware for her para­chute an­chor, which de­ploys in heavy seas to sta­bilise the craft.

She had been in con­stant con­tact with her wife, De­bra Mad­sen, in Long Beach, Cal­i­for­nia, by text and satel­lite phone, and An­gela was post­ing pic­tures and ob­ser­va­tions on so­cial me­dia. De­bra said that when she warned that a cy­clone was com­ing, An­gela knew she had to fix the hard­ware, which would re­quire teth­er­ing her­self to the boat and get­ting in the wa­ter.

“To­mor­row is a swim day,” An­gela posted on Twit­ter on Satur­day, June 20th.

On Sun­day, there were no mes­sages. De­bra could tell from data that the boat was not be­ing rowed. At about 10.30pm lo­cal time she texted An­gela that their friend So­raya Simi, who is mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary about An­gela, was call­ing the coast guard.

At about 8pm on Mon­day, the coast guard spot­ted her in the wa­ter, life­less and teth­ered to her boat. The plane couldn’t land. But the coast guard di­verted a Ger­man-flagged cargo ship, en route to Tahiti, to re­trieve her. The ship re­cov­ered Mad­sen’s body, but not her boat. The ship reached Tahiti on Tues­day.

De­bra Mad­sen said she may never know what hap­pened, un­less An­gela, who was keep­ing a video di­ary, had turned on one of her cam­eras. She said An­gela might have been caught in her tether, or de­vel­oped hy­pother­mia. She might have had a heart at­tack .

The an­swer may lie in the boat. De­bra is try­ing to ar­range for its re­trieval, which will be costly, and for An­gela’s body to be trans­ported to Hawaii for cre­ma­tion and burial at sea with mil­i­tary hon­ours.

“I want her to com­plete her jour­ney,” she said.


An­gela Irene Mad­sen was born on May 10th, 1960, in Xe­nia, Ohio. Her fa­ther, Ronald, sold cars, and her mother, Lu­cille (Si­b­ley) Mad­sen, was a home­maker.

With one sis­ter and five broth­ers, An­gela grew up learn­ing to fight and play sports. All that was put on hold briefly when she be­came preg­nant as a high-school ju­nior. A daugh­ter, Jen­nifer, was born in 1977, and Mad­sen grad­u­ated in 1978.

She en­listed in the marines in 1979 and was sta­tioned in El Toro, Cal­i­for­nia, as a mil­i­tary po­lice of­fi­cer. She was able to keep her daugh­ter with her.

At 6 ft 1 ins tall, An­gela ex­celled at bas­ket­ball and played for the ma­rine corps women’s team. Dur­ing prac­tice one day, she fell for­ward and some­one stepped on her back. She had two rup­tured disks and a dam­aged sci­atic nerve and for a time could not walk.

With ther­apy, she slowly re­cov­ered. She found work as a me­chanic. But she could not keep up such phys­i­cally de­mand­ing work and took a desk job as a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer.

In 1992 she broke a leg and ribs in a car ac­ci­dent. Al­ready suf­fer­ing from spinal de­gen­er­a­tion, she had cor­rec­tive surgery the next year, which left her with both legs paral­ysed.

After the surgery, the woman who had been her ro­man­tic part­ner for four years left, say­ing she “did not sign on to be with some­one in a wheel­chair,” ac­cord­ing to Mad­sen’s mem­oir, Row­ing Against the Wind (2014).

The part­ner took her car, dis­abil­ity cheques and sav­ings, Mad­sen wrote. With no money, she was evicted. She stored pos­ses­sions in a locker at Dis­ney­land and lived on the streets with her dog for a cou­ple of months, un­til helped by the Paral­ysed Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica.

“When I cel­e­brated my 34th birth­day on May 10, I found my­self wish­ing I had never been born,” she wrote.

Then came an ac­ci­dent in the San Fran­cisco sub­way in which she plunged from her wheel­chair on to the tracks. It left her with a mild brain in­jury but led her to re­alise that she had more to be grate­ful for than sorry about, and she re­solved to shape her own destiny.

She turned to com­pet­i­tive sports. She got in­volved with the Vet­er­ans Wheel­chair Games, and in 1995 won three gold medals: in swim­ming, the wheel­chair slalom course and bil­liards. By 1998 she had dis­cov­ered adap­tive row­ing for ath­letes with phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties, and by 1999 she had joined her first ocean row­ing re­gatta.

Ocean row­ing gave her the chance to com­pete against peo­ple with­out dis­abil­i­ties, and she rel­ished the chal­lenge and the free­dom. Mostly, she loved be­ing out on the blue ex­panse.

“It is mo­not­o­nous, it’s fright­en­ing, it’s hope­less, it’s ma­jes­tic, it’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing, it’s end­less, it’s time­less, it’s ex­haust­ing, it’s re­ju­ve­nat­ing, it’s painful, it’s joy­ful, it’s frus­trat­ing, it’s con­tra­dic­tory, it’s ex­tra­or­di­nary,” she told Trek­ity.

Even can­cer and a dou­ble mas­tec­tomy did not slow her down.She founded the Cal­i­for­nia Adap­tive Row­ing Pro­gram. She won four gold medals with the US row­ing team at the world cham­pi­onships and com­peted in three Par­a­lympic Games, win­ning a bronze medal at shot put in Lon­don in 2012.

She met De­bra Moeller, a so­cial worker, in 2007. They mar­ried in 2013.Mad­sen is also sur­vived by three broth­ers, her sis­ter, her step­mother, two stepchil­dren, and five grand­chil­dren. Her daugh­ter died last year.

De­bra Mad­sen and Simi wrote on the web­site RowOfLife: “She knew the risks bet­ter than any of us and was will­ing to take those risks be­cause be­ing at sea made her hap­pier than any­thing else. She told us time and again that if she died try­ing, that is how she wanted to go.”

It is mo­not­o­nous, it’s fright­en­ing, it’s hope­less, it’s ma­jes­tic, it’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing, it’s end­less, it’s time­less, it’s ex­haust­ing, it’s re­ju­ve­nat­ing, it’s painful, it’s joy­ful, it’s frus­trat­ing, it’s con­tra­dic­tory, it’s ex­tra­or­di­nary

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