Angela Madsen, daredevil Paralympian who rowed across the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
·4-min read
Angela Madsen with Scott Brown after winning the double sculls B final at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing   - Feng Li/Getty Images
Angela Madsen with Scott Brown after winning the double sculls B final at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing - Feng Li/Getty Images

Angela Madsen, who has died aged 60, was a former US Marine who overcame extraordinary adversity to become a Paralympian shot put medallist and a world rowing champion; she died while rowing from Los Angeles to Hawaii.

Angela Irene Madsen was born in Xenia, Ohio, on May 10 1960, the daughter of Ronald, a car salesman, and Lucille, née Sibley. She hoped to secure a college sports scholarship, but at 17 had a baby. Told by her brothers that she had no chance of joining the Marines, she set out to prove them wrong and, leaving her daughter with her parents, she enlisted.

She trained as a military police officer and was posted to a base near Irvine, California. There she played basketball, and was talent-spotted by the women’s Marine Corps team. During her first training session, however, she fell on the court and another player trod on her back, rupturing two discs.

Competing in the shot put at the World Athletics Championships in Doha in 2015 -  Francois Nel/Getty Images
Competing in the shot put at the World Athletics Championships in Doha in 2015 - Francois Nel/Getty Images

She slowly recovered, and worked for a while as a car mechanic, but found this too physically demanding, and became a mechanical engineer instead. In 1992, injuries she sustained in a car crash were compounded by the spinal degeneration left from her basketball injury, and she had to have an operation, which left her paraplegic.

Her partner of four years, a woman, left her, as she recalled in her memoir, Rowing Against the Wind, saying she “did not sign on to be with someone in a wheelchair”. The partner, Angela Madsen wrote, also stole her disability cheques, savings and car, and she ended up homeless, for a while sleeping in her wheelchair on the streets with her dog.

She set about putting her life back together, and what turned things around was an incident on the San Francisco subway, when she fell from her wheelchair on to the track and thought she had broken her neck.

At the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro - Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images
At the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro - Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

This prompted a ruthless reassessment. “I stopped being a victim,” she wrote, “and started taking responsibility to retrain, re-parent or reprogram myself. I just improved my coping skills and took myself to another level.”

After attending a National Veterans Games event she began competing in wheelchair basketball. She also became involved with the Veterans Wheelchair Games, and in 1995 won gold medals in swimming, wheelchair slalom and billiards.

Three years later she took up rowing, and within a year was taking part in an ocean regatta. When a disabled programme was added to the 2002 World Rowing Championships in Seville she took silver in the single sculls, and for the next three years won successive golds in the double sculls.

At a school sports day in Los Angeles in 2015 - Matt Sayles/Invision for Samsung/AP
At a school sports day in Los Angeles in 2015 - Matt Sayles/Invision for Samsung/AP

In 2007 she became the first disabled woman to row across the Atlantic, and two years later, with the British rower Helen Taylor in a team of eight, she became one of the first two women to row across the Indian Ocean; she was also part of a team that circumnavigated Great Britain.

All this was not enough for Angela Madsen, and she moved into athletics, winning bronze in the shot put at the 2012 Paralympics in London, as well as finishing fifth in the javelin. In 2016 she set a world shot record of 9m 43cm, and at that summer’s Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro she finished eighth in the shot and seventh in the javelin.

In 2013 she had attempted to row from California to Hawaii but was forced to abandon after being caught in a storm. She subsequently completed the crossing with a partner, but was determined to do it alone, and on April 22 this year she set out from Marina del Rey.

In constant touch by satellite phone with her wife Debra, she was halfway to Hawaii when she suffered equipment problems that necessitated getting into the sea: “Tomorrow is a swim day,” she posted on Twitter on June 20. Nothing more was heard from her, and two days later a coastguard plane spotted her body in the water, tethered to her vessel.

Her wife Debra survives her along with a stepson and stepdaughter; her daughter died earlier this year.

Angela Madsen, born May 10 1960, found dead June 22 2020