1960-05-10

ANGELA MADSEN, was an American Paralympian sportswoman in both rowing and track and field born on this date. In a long career, Madsen moved from race rowing to ocean challenges before switching in 2011 to athletics, winning a bronze medal in the shot put at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London. Madsen and teammate Helen Taylor were the first women to row across the Indian Ocean. She died in June 2020 while attempting a solo row from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Her heroic story rivals Greek tragedy.

At 6 feet 1 inch 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 in the Sears automotive department and later at U-Haul. But she could not keep up such physically demanding work and took a desk job as a mechanical engineer.

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

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 Ms. Madsen’s memoir, “Rowing Against the Wind” (2014).

The partner took her car, her disability checks and her savings, Ms. Madsen wrote. With no money for rent, she was evicted. She stored a few possessions in a locker at Disneyland and lived on the streets with her dog for a couple of months, until she was helped by the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Then came an accident in the San Francisco subway in which she plunged headfirst from her wheelchair onto the train tracks. It left her with a mild brain injury but led her to realize that she had more to be grateful for than sorry about, and she resolved to shape her own destiny.

Always athletic, 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.

Even cancer and a double mastectomy did not slow her down.

She trained, raced, coached and surfed, as a 2015 documentary on her achievements makes clear. She founded the California Adaptive Rowing Program. She won four gold medals with the U.S. rowing team at the world championships and competed in three Paralympic Games, winning a bronze medal for the shot put in London in 2012.

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

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 stabilize the craft.

She met Debra Moeller, a social worker, in 2007 when Debra brought a disabled and abused child to Angela’s adaptive rowing program. They married in 2013.

She had been in constant contact with her wife in Long Beach, Calif., by text and satellite phone, and Angela was posting pictures and observations on social media for those following her voyage. Debra said in an interview 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 20. On Sunday, there were no messages from her. As the day wore on, Debra grew more worried. She could tell from tracking data that the boat was not being rowed. At around 10:30 p.m. she texted Angela that their friend Soraya Simi, who is making a documentary about Angela, was calling the Coast Guard.

At around 8 p.m. Monday, the Coast Guard spotted her in the water, lifeless and tethered to her boat.

The plane couldn’t land. But the Coast Guard had already diverted a German-flagged cargo ship en route, to Tahiti from Oakland, to retrieve her. The ship was able to recover Ms. Madsen’s body on Monday night, 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 without knowing it. She might also have had a heart attack or other illness.

The answer may lie in the boat, still adrift in the Pacific. 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 honors.

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

 

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