Angela Madsen — beloved athlete, LGBTQ+ activist, former Marine, and three-time Paralympian — has died while attempting a solo rowing journey from California to Hawaii.
A native of Long Beach, Calif., Madsen was attempting to become the first paraplegic, first out gay athlete, and oldest woman at 60 years old to row across the Pacific Ocean. She 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.
Though she only made it halfway to her destination, Madsen's remarkable life will be remembered activists and athletes, many of which are disabled, who were inspired by not only her accomplishments but also her driving pursuit for equality in sports.
News of her death was revealed by her wife yesterday on Facebook, where she explained that she’d sent Madsen a text message on Saturday, June 20. But the next day, Madsen was not responding to her messages.
“When I looked at the tracking it did not appear that she was rowing the boat, but rather that is was drifting,” she wrote. “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.”
After filmmaker Soraya Simi, who was doing a documentary about Madsen's historic solo row, contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, the team sent out an immediate alert.
The Coast Guard also sent a C17 for a fly over, where they discovered Madsen's body floating in the water, still tethered to her boat.
The pilot was unable to “relay that information due to poor satellite coverage,” her wife explains. But a German-registered cargo ship, Polynesia, recovered Madsen at sea on Monday night.
“Angela was living her dream. She loved being on the water as you could see from the photos she sent,” her wife explained. “I never planned a life without her so be patient with me while I figure all of this out. 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.”
Madsen's life was nothing short of extraordinary. According to The Guardian, she had joined the Marines after her brothers told her she “wouldn’t make it in the military.”
Madsen became paralyzed in 1993 from a spinal cord injury while playing for the Marines basketball team. An unsuccessful back surgery left her with paraplegia.
"During one game, somebody tripped me and someone else landed feet first on my lower back during a game,” Madsen wrote in a 2014 article for Time magazine. “That ruptured two discs in my lumbar spine, ending my military career. A botched surgery paralyzed me from the waist down.”
Following the injury, she lost her job, her marriage, and ended up living on the streets. At one point, she lived out of a storage locker at Disneyland, the Long Beach Press-Telegram reports.
Not willing to let her disability define her, Madsen found rowing in 1997 and became so passionate about the sport that she created a rowing program for people with disabilities at the Pete Archer Rowing Center at Marine Stadium in Long Beach. She later competed in the Paralympics three times, winning a bronze medal in rowing and shot put.
Of course, Madsen’s Pacific Ocean trip was not her first journey across long waters. In 2009, she and Helen Taylor became the first women to row across the Indian Ocean. The following year, she was part of a team that circumnavigated Great Britain.
She’s also the first woman with a disability to row across the Atlantic Ocean — which she did twice. In fact, she is mentioned six times in the Guinness Book of World Records.
A staunch LGBTQ+ rights activist, Madsen was a grand marshal for the Long Beach Pride Parade in 2015.
“This was a clear risk going in since day one, and Angela was aware of that more than anyone else,” filmmaker Simi said in a statement to the Southern California News Group. “She was willing to die at sea doing the thing she loved most.”
Retired Marine Major Nico Marcolongo of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which supported her latest effort across the Pacific, told Task and Purpose that Madsen was an “example of the human spirit and what one can accomplish when one puts their mind to it."
“It was tragic to hear that news,” he added. “To be a fellow a Marine, it was a little extra saddening for me. I can say that she did die doing what she loved.”