Angela Madsen, the 60-year-old three-time Paralympian and Marine veteran whose goal was to set a world record as the first paraplegic, first openly-gay athlete, and oldest woman to row across the Pacific Ocean, has died.
On the RowofLife Facebook page, Madsen’s wife Deb wrote:
“With extreme sadness I must announce that Angela Madsen will not complete her solo row to Hawaii. I received her last text Saturday night. Sunday she was not responding to my text messages. When I checked the main message inbox, she had not returned any messages. When I looked at the tracking, it did not appear that she was rowing the boat, but rather that is was drifting.
"Knowing she was planning to enter the water to fix her hardware to deploy the para-anchor from the bow, I was concerned she did not text when she got back on the boat. She was about as far from any land as she could get and the communication can be a challenge. I was hopeful but still had a feeling of heaviness in my chest.”
Deb Madsen added that filmmaker Soraya Simi, who was doing a documentary on the solo row, contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and explained their concern. Simi was told that the Coast Guard diverted a German cargo ship, the Polynesia, to render aid as it was en route to Tahiti from Oakland. Simi was told the cargo ship was about 11-12 hours away from Madsen’s boat. In the meantime, the Coast Guard sent a C17 for a flyover between 8 and 9 p.m. Monday.
“The plane saw Angela in the water, apparently deceased, tethered to RowofLife, but was unable to relay that information due to poor satellite coverage,” Deb Madsen wrote on the Facebook page. “When the Polynesia arrived about 11 p.m. Monday they found and recovered Angela’s body. RowofLife is adrift and we are working on its recovery. Angela is now in route to Tahiti without me, which was not our agreement."
Simi sent a statement to the Grunion:
“This is the single heaviest moment of my life. I am so sorry and so sad to write this. I know so many of you were cheering her on and wanted her to succeed. We are devastated.
"This was a clear risk going in since day one, and Angela was aware of that more than anyone else. She was willing to die at sea doing the thing she loved most. She was a hell of a woman and one of the most influential and inspiring people in my life. I hope to live with a fraction of the fierceness of spirit Angela had. I can’t believe she’s gone.”
Deb Madsen concluded her post saying that Angela was living her dream; that she loved being on the water.
“Thank you for all your support. Angela was truly touched by your support. Thank you to the U.S. Coast Guard and the captain and crew of the Polynesia. Deb”
The Facebook page was updated on Monday, June 22, and showed that RowofLife was on Day 60 and almost halfway to Honolulu — 1,124 nautical miles from Los Angeles with 1,267 nautical miles remaining. The last message from the boat was posted on Saturday, June 20, and said: "6/20 Tomorrow is a swim day. I have to reshackle my bow anchor bridle in case there is a big storm. It came undone some time ago. I've been using the stern – Angela Madsen."
There were no boats following her for support. The lifelong athlete carried all her own food and used a desalinator to make fresh water. The 20-foot rowboat is 6 feet wide. It has a hatch that contains a bed and room for supplies. It weighs about 750-800 pounds unladen, but once all the food and supplies were loaded, it weighed about 1,250 pounds.
Madsen's story has been well-chronicled.
In 1993, she was left paralyzed after a number of errors during surgery stemming from an injury suffered playing basketball while based at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. According to an NBC News report in 2012, the U.S. military refused to pay for Madsen's medical bills following the accident. Not only did she lose the use of her legs, she lost her home and marriage. At one point, she was homeless and lived out of a storage locker at Disneyland.
After going through a rehabilitation program at the VA Hospital in Long Beach, Madsen turned to adaptive sports. She started rowing in 1997 and was so motivated that one year later, she initiated an adaptive rowing program at the Pete Archer Rowing Center at Marine Stadium.
But rowing wasn’t enough for this ultra-competitive athlete. She was a participant in the Paralympics three times and won a bronze medal in both rowing and shot put.
She was the first woman with a disability to twice row across the Atlantic Ocean. In 2009, she and teammate Helen Taylor became the first women to row across the Indian Ocean. In 2010, she was part of a team that circumnavigated Great Britain. Madsen is mentioned six times in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Madsen also has been a voice for disability rights and an LGBTQ activist. In 2015, she was a grand marshal of the 2015 Long Beach Pride Parade.
Madsen’s 60th birthday was on May 10. She celebrated with a moon pie and a Samoa Girl Scout cookie with a candle.
“I’m going to be the first paraplegic and the oldest woman to row across the Pacific. I’m really competitive,” she told the Grunion Gazette on March 27. “I know I can beat that record.”