Three-time Paralympian, lesbian activist and Marine vet dies while attempting historic row across Pacific Ocean
The record-breaking Paralympian, LGBT+ activist and Marine veteran Angela Madsen has tragically died while attempting a solo rowing journey across the Pacific.
Madsen, 60, held six Guinness World Records and was aiming to set another as the first paraplegic and oldest woman to row the 2,500 miles from California to Hawaii.
The news of her death was confirmed by her wife, Deb Madsen, who explained in a Facebook post that she last heard from Angela on Saturday evening (June 20) when she said she was going to enter the water to complete some maintenance. She lost contact shortly after.
“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.”
Madsen’s team sent out an immediate alert to the US Coast Guard who sent a spotter plane to do a flyover. They discovered Madsen’s body floating in the water, still tethered to her boat, but were unable to relay that information due to poor satellite coverage.
The nearest vessel was a German cargo ship 11-12 hours away. It reached Madsen’s boat on Monday night and recovered her body.
“Angela is now in route to Tahiti without me, which was not our agreement,” Deb wrote. “Angela was living her dream. She loved being on the water as you could see from the photos she sent.
“I am sad but OK. I never planned a life without her so be patient with me while I figure all of this out.”
The filmmaker Soraya Simi, who was making a documentary about Madsen’s historic crossing, said she was shocked by the news.
“This is the single heaviest moment of my life,” Simi said in a 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 led a remarkable life and leaves behind a far-reaching legacy spanning athletics and activism.
She became a single parent at the age of 17 and made a home for her daughter through a career in the US Marines, setting out to prove her brothers wrong after they told her she “wouldn’t make it in the military”.
She successfully trained as a military police officer and was stationed in California, but tragically became paralysed 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 paralysed me from the waist down.”
When the military refused to pay for her medical bills she lost her home, fell into a depression and ended up homeless, living out of a storage locker in Disneyland.
Madsen’s life turned around when she attended the National Veterans Games and was introduced to wheelchair basketball. This sparked an incredibly successful sporting career in athletics, rowing, track and field.
Outside the arena she was a campaigner for LGBT+ rights and was a grand marshal for the Long Beach Pride Parade in 2015.
Simi said Madsen understood the danger involved in the 2,500 mile journey. “This was a clear risk going in since day one, and Angela was aware of that more than anyone else,” she said. “She was willing to die at sea doing the thing she loved most.”