Paralympian Angela Madsen dies at sea trying to set world record

Angela Madsen Dies

In this undated photo, Angela Madsen, left, and her wife, Debra, enjoy a day at the beach. Photo: Facebook.

Angela Madsen’s dream was to be the first paraplegic, lesbian athlete, and oldest woman to row solo from Los Angeles to Honolulu.

Madsen, 60 and a Paralympic medalist, embarked on that 2,600 mile trip about 60 days ago, and spent her 60th birthday, May 10, at sea. Her 20-foot boat was named Row of Life, and Madsen chronicled her ambitious journey on Row of Life’s official Facebook page.

Madsen, who lived in Long Beach and was a grand marshal in the 2015 Long Beach Pride Parade, had planned to go into the water of the Pacific Ocean to make repairs to Row of Life, she posted Saturday. But on Sunday, she didn’t reply to text messages from her wife, Debra.

On Tuesday morning, Debra posted on the Row of Life page that Madsen had died.

“I must announce that Angela Madsen will not complete her solo row to Hawaii,” Debra said.

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Row of Life

Debra had been tracking Madsen’s boat, but on Sunday it showed that the boat was drifting. The U.S. Coast Guard was notified, Debra said in the post.

A German cargo ship, Polynesia, en route to Tahiti from Oakland, which was approximately 11 hours away from Madsen, responded to the Coast Guard’s call to check on Madsen. At the same time, the Coast Guard sent a C-17 for a fly over, Deb wrote.

The plane spotted Madsen in the water. She was tethered to Row of Life, apparently deceased. Madsen was approximately half through her journey, about 1,200 miles from Honolulu.

When the cargo ship arrived about 11 p.m. Monday, they recovered Madsen’s body and took her to Tahiti, Debra said.

“Angela is now en route to Tahiti without me, which was not our agreement,” Debra said.

“Angela was living her dream. She loved being on the water…,” Debra said.

Angela Madsen

Angela Madsen was a world-class Paralympian. Her dream was to be the first paraplegic, lesbian athlete, and oldest woman to row solo from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Photo: Facebook.


Madsen was a world-class rower, having twice crossed the Atlantic Ocean. She also competed at the Paralympic Beijing Games 2008 in rowing and at the 2012 London Games in shot put, earning a bronze medal.

Madsen competed again in shot put and also in javelin in Rio in 2016. Madsen was making her second attempt at a solo crossing of the Pacific, having rowed successfully from California to Hawaii with a partner in 2014.

“Angela brought unrivaled passion, joy and determination to the world, and we were the lucky ones to have her come into our lives as a member of the Paralympic family,” Cathy Sellers, retired director of U.S. Paralympics Track & Field, said in a statement. “She was tireless in all that she did, but I always appreciated her advocacy for embracing all types of diversity in sport. She was committed to teaching and educating the next generation of Paralympic athletes and gave selflessly to mentor, coach and teach others.”

Long Beach Pride

When Madsen was a grand marshal in the 2015 Long Beach Pride Parade, she said it was “progress” for LGBTQ people with disabilities.

“Being disabled, we get left by the wayside. Everyone across the board treats us equally bad,” Madsen said. “But we are seeing progress. Disabled veterans are being included in more things.

“Our LGBT people have not been getting much inclusion, but we are now,” Madsen said. “It’s progress.”

In the Marines

Madsen was out of the closet almost 30 years before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed and gay and lesbian military personnel were allowed to serve openly in the armed forces.

After serving two years at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro near Irvine, Madsen came out in 1981. But during her time in the Marine Corps, Madsen was afraid the Marines would discover her sexual orientation, and she would be dishonorably discharged.

At the time, the military routinely discharged people for being gay or lesbian. While stationed at El Toro, Madsen worked as a military police officer and was asked to uncover closeted service members.

“Because I was military police, my commander tried to enlist me to do the witch hunt and report other gays and lesbians. It was ridiculous and stupid,” Madsen said in 2015. “I didn’t cooperate, which hurt any chance I might have had for advancement.”

In the closet

Madsen knew what it was like to live in fear and hide in the closet.

“Everybody was hiding. Everyone was afraid someone would out you,” she said. “It was scary. You had to be extremely careful when you went out. Sometimes you had to wear a disguise.

“It made for an atmosphere that people who were afraid to be outed would do anything to not be outed, including blackmailing other people,” Madsen said.


In 1993, Madsen was paralyzed after a botched back surgery. But four years, later she was rowing, competing, and winning events. In 1998, Madsen founded the California Adaptive Rowing Program at Marine Stadium, which gives people with all types of disabilities the opportunity to row in Alamitos Bay.

She’s competed in four National Veterans Wheelchair Games and earned medals in swimming, track, and billiards.

Madsen competed in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing and has four World Championship Gold Medals from rowing on the U.S. Rowing Team.

Madsen also has six Guinness World Records for rowing across various oceans: the Atlantic Ocean in 2007 and 2011; the Indian Ocean in 2009 and around Great Britain in 2010.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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