Paralympian who died on solo Pacific challenge
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