By Gary Metzker,
Long Beach’s Angela Madsen, a three-time Paralympian and U.S. Marine veteran, has died while trying to become the first paraplegic, first openly gay athlete and oldest woman to row across the Pacific Ocean, her wife said Tuesday, June 23. She was 60.
Madsen set out from Marina del Rey in a 20-foot rowboat in April with the goal of reaching the Hawaii Yacht Club, in Honolulu, within four months. Deb Madsen, the rower’s wife, said in a Tuesday Facebook post that Angela Madsen sent her a text message on Saturday night, June 20.
But on Sunday, Angela Madsen was not responding to her wife’s messages, Deb Madsen said. A Monday update on the RowofLife Facebook page, named after Angela Madsen’s boat, said the rower was about halfway to Hawaii.
“With extreme sadness,” Madsen wrote on the Facebook page on Tuesday, “I must announce that Angela Madsen will not complete her solo row to Hawaii.”
Madsen’s cause of death was not immediately known. The U.S. Coast Guard, which helped locate Madsen’s body, did not return a request for comment Tuesday afternoon. Deb Madsen also did not return a request for comment.
But filmmaker Soraya Simi, who was doing a documentary on the solo row, said she was devastated.
“This is the single heaviest moment of my life,” Simi said in a written statement to the Southern California News Group. “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.”
Madsen became paralyzed in 1993 after a back surgery gone wrong; she needed the surgery because she was injured playing basketball while stationed at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, near Irvine. She became jobless, lost her marriage and ended up living on the streets. At one point, she lived out of a storage locker at Disneyland.
After going through a rehabilitation program at the The VA Long Beach Healthcare System, 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.
Madsen competed in the Paralympics three times, winning a bronze medal in both rowing and shot put.
She became 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.
“I wanted to create an opportunity for people with disabilities to row,” she told SCNG in March. “It’s one of the most inclusive activities people can do. We row three days a week and do it year-round. It’s completely free for people with disabilities.”
And that she did, according to Deb Arenberg, USRowing’s adaptive development manager.
“Angela was a volunteer coach for many years for the VA’s Valor Games in both track and field and rowing, where her easy-going, yet hardline style, motivated many injured veterans to reach new personal and physical goals during their recovery,” Arenberg said in a written statement on the USRowing website. “Her smile, her adventuresome spirit, and what she has taught us through her inspiring lifestyle will be missed by so many.”
Madsen’s most recent journey was an attempt to row 25% of the Pacific Ocean — or about 2,500 miles, from Southern California to Hawaii.
And she went it alone.
There were no boats following her for support. She carried all her own food and used a desalinator to make fresh water. Her rowboat was 6 feet wide, with a hatch containing a bed and room for supplies.
Deb Madsen, on Facebook, said she was worried when her wife didn’t respond to messages on Sunday. The rower, Deb Madsen wrote, was planning to go in the water for some maintenance, which could prove dangerous. But, at the same time, she added, communication in the middle of the Pacific Ocean could be spotty at best.
“I was hopeful,” Deb Madsen said, “but still had a feeling of heaviness in my chest.”
When Deb Madsen looked at the tracking, she wrote on Facebook, the boat seemed to be drifting — rather than moving under the power of an oar.
Simi, the filmaker contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, Deb Madsen said, and explained their concerns.
The Coast Guard diverted a German cargo ship, the Polynesia, to render aid, Deb Madsen said Simi was told. The ship, traveling from Tahiti to Oakland, was about 12 hours from Angela Madsen’s boat.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile, sent a plane to fly over the area Monday evening, Deb Madsen said.
“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,” Deb Madsen wrote. “Angela is now in route to Tahiti without me, which was not our agreement.”
Simi, in her statement to SCNG, said she can’t believe Angela Madsen is dead. But, she added, Madsen understood the danger of rowing across the Pacific.
“This was a clear risk going in since day one, and Angela was aware of that more than anyone else,” Simi said. “She was willing to die at sea doing the thing she loved most.”
Source: Orange County Register