A 3x Paralympian, 14x Guinness World Record-setting, Marine Veteran’s Final Journey

Foreword from author:

I submitted this piece to MMAA three days before Deb and I learned Angela Madsen passed away at sea. We were full of confidence, resolute that we’d be seeing her on the other side of the Pacific in less than a month. Unfortunately, tragically, incomprehensibly, Angela died halfway. Her boat is adrift and soon I’m departing with a crew to recuperate it. Deb is in Hawaii organizing logistics for Angela’s memorial. It seems in sheer busyness one can avoid coming to a full stop and letting the weight of grief sink in.

Re-reading this brought me to a full stop. I was asked to make changes, and after a few tries, I feel that what I wrote stands true and offers a new perspective of Angela’s story. It also feels less like she’s gone to keep it in present tense. After all, if things were different, she’d still be at sea, rowing closer to Hawaii. And since we’re actively working to bring her body and her boat across an ocean to finish what she started, it doesn’t feel over yet, however horrible and unchangeable the circumstance is. That feels like the deeper lesson in a tough year where we hoped Angela’s success would be a sliver of positivity: that so much is not in our control, but how we respond to it is. So, to borrow Angela’s wise words, we can’t look back and wish what was, we must instead move forward with what is, and on bad days, row harder.

Heavy rain batters thunderously loud against the cabin. Squall after squall after squall comes and goes, comes and goes. Sleep is a distant dream. But laying horizontally in a 6’x4’ space, that’s something– at least. The timer goes off. Your two hours are up. Grudgingly, you locate a headlamp and foul weather jacket in the bunk and open the hatch door to reveal more of the same: wind blowing hard and not in the right direction; waves between 10-14’ splashing over the gunwale and knocking the boat every which way. Out on deck a cheese grater disguised as a rowing seat awaits, ready to dig into the sores that just don’t have the time or space to heal. And you, a mere speck in the ocean, staring at the magnitude of your decision every moment of every day.

This is Day 57. And somewhere in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, as you read these very words, a woman is out there. She is in the 20’ ocean rowing boat, Row of Life, over 1,000 nautical miles away from land in either direction. Save for a school of six wahoo living underneath the hull to talk to and share MRE crumbs with, there is no one, nothing, and nobody around.

And the woman? That’s Angela Madsen. A 3x Paralympian, 14x Guinness World Record-setting, Marine Veteran who is on her way to becoming the first paraplegic, the first openly gay athlete, and the oldest woman to row the Pacific Ocean solo.

She is not followed by any support boat. She has no motor or sail power. She will use only her arms, her lifetime of ocean-rowing experience, her resilient spirit, her trained mind, and a whole lot of heart to cross 2,500 miles, for over three to four months, from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Alone.

Let me answer your questions in the order I think you’ll ask them:

Yes, it is dangerous. However, Angela has already rowed the Atlantic Ocean twice, and the Indian and Pacific once. She circumnavigated Great Britain and made it to the Paralympics three times for rowing, shot put, and javelin. She won a bronze medal. She is the first to do a lot of things, but a solo row, well, this is her second attempt. Her boat is equipped with an EPIRB, GPS, a liferaft, and a satellite phone to call for help. She can navigate by the stars. She has a freshwater maker to desalinate ocean water and 120-day supply of food. She has solar panels to charge her electronics. She has a playlist with 2,000 songs and a handful of audiobooks. She has an extra set of oars, a background as a mechanical engineer, and an unbelievable ability to jerry rig just about anything. She goes to the bathroom “bucket and chuck-it” style. She’s never been seasick. Not even the time she was rolled by a 50’ rogue wave in Australia. She’s not afraid of sharks –they’re more likely afraid of her. She never gets bored because “no two minutes are the same at sea.” She rows for two hours on, two hours off, non-stop, every single day. On her off time, she recovers.

And now your next question, which I’m not qualified to answer: why?

I don’t know. I can’t imagine. 

But what I can tell you is that getting to know Angela means getting to know what things like “permanent L1 incomplete spinal cord injury with neurogenic bowel and bladder” means. It means rowing an ocean alone is even harder than anything you could ever possibly imagine. It means that as a lifelong, exceptional athlete with Olympic dreams, agency over her body was taken away from her after waking up from a botched 10-hour surgery at the VA when she was only 33. It means that she hit rock bottom, but it also means she found a way to climb back up. It means she believes in destiny, in a deeper purpose or mission she’s supposed to fulfill, and for some reason, that this is the body to do it in. 

And unbeknownst to Angela, she embarked on this very personal adventure against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous and significant times in the 21st century. Angela left at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and since has heard no news of its evolution, what other major societal events have surfaced, or what kind of world will greet her on the other side. Like an astronaut, she has fully opted-out of everything we’re dealing with in our lives back on land, and instead confronting three simple options every day:

  1. Keep rowing.
  2. Quit.
  3. Die.

And what about us back on land? What kind of choices do we have? What are we learning from our current predicament looking at it through Angela’s lens? Or what if we suspended our realities for a moment and instead joined Angela in hers… an ultimate social isolation in a desert of liquid blue. Maybe then we can start to answer for ourselves, why?

At the end of the day, we all love a hero. We love someone who takes us out of our complacency for a brief but important moment, reminds us what’s possible, and gives us something to root for. Sometimes one comes around with the perfectly prescribed balm of escapism right when we need it most, or maybe it’s not escapism at all, but confrontation with the parts of ourselves we don’t often get to see or think about.

I guess we have Angela Madsen to thank this time around. 

This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Modern Military Magazine.