Angela Madsen Loved Life (and her AT)

Thank you, Ability Tools (the California AT Program) for this wonderful interview with Angela Madsen (originally published a year ago). Madsen died last month pursuing her dream to cross the Pacific (from California to Hawaii) a journey she’d completed with a partner in 2014. Had she finished, she would have become the first rower with paraplegia, the first out gay athlete and the oldest woman (she was 60) to make this journey solo. In this interview, Angela shares her exhilarating life perspective and appreciation for the AT innovations that helped power her dreams. As noted by many, she died doing what she loved and welcomed the risk. Rest in peace, Angela Madsen.

Champion Athlete Angela Madsen shares her perspective.

It’s nearly impossible to encapsulate who Angela Madsen is in just a few words: She’s a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, an athlete who has earned multiple medals in multiple national and international sports, a Guinness World Record holder, the founder and director of a California adaptive rowing organization, a devoted spouse to her wife, and so much more.

Angela in the Oval Office shaking President Obama's hand.

We had the privilege of asking Angela about her life as an athlete, advocate, and veteran with a disability. Although her biography is chock-full of amazing accomplishments, she was very down-to-earth and candid about sharing her experiences with us.

What are your favorite assistive devices?

My favorite assistive device for daily living is my wheelchair. I spent years trying to get out of it and was diagnosed with adjustment disorder. I have no idea why they define not wanting to be in a wheelchair a disorder. At the time of my initial accident, I had been assigned to life in a wheelchair and got out of it, so I was sure I could do it again.

Photo of Angela Madsen in her wheelchair at a disabled veteran monument.
When I see people in wheelchairs, I no longer see people who can’t, I see people defying the definition of disability to live their lives. It is a vehicle necessary to get from point A to point B, but it also provides the freedom to not have to stay in one place.

My perception of what the wheelchair was, at that time, was totally skewed. I thought it would mean I was disabled. This life has changed my definition of disability to be anyone who believes they cannot and never tries and that is not me. The wheelchair doesn’t disable me. My previous perception about disability could have very likely crippled me.

Sports

There are so many adaptive or assistive devices specifically designed for daily living and for our participation in sports. I don’t really have a favorite. I’ve designed fixed seats for boats and rowing machines. I’ve found inexpensive alternatives to grip assist gloves and there are others who continually develop and adapt things for just about anything we could possibly want or need to do.

Woman seated in a boat rowing in the water. Date stamp 2009.02.24
Legendary. Angela set a Guinness World record when she rowed the Pacific Ocean (2,700 miles from California to Hawaii) as the first women’s pair, first disabled woman to row across the Pacific Ocean and is still the only woman to row 4 crossings of 3 oceans and circumnavigation of Great Britain.

My favorite thing about assistive devices is that there is always something new and evolved versions developed that help expand possibilities for everyone. We are not cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all, or confined to a diagnosis or symptom of our circumstance. And our innovations prove just how unlimited we are.

What do you love about your life?

A woman surfs kneeling on a board.
Angela adaptive surfing
Head shot of two women smiling together on a boat.
Angela and her wife, Debra

What I love about my life is my ability to live it fully, to love deeply, to laugh loudly. I love my inability to take no for an answer, as it serves me well. I wouldn’t have accomplished any of my goals if I based any of it on what others thought I could and could not do. I love that I have been able to coach sports and create opportunities for myself and for others. I love that I have led an adventurous unscripted life and set such ambitious extreme goals.

What advice would you give someone with a disability interested in sports?

What advice I would give for anyone with any disability who was interested in sports or anything else is that there is something out there that you are uniquely qualified to do and finding out what that it is requires, as a 1st step, action to find out what that is and then giving it your best. If you’ve given it your best and it doesn’t work out, go back to the first step.

Angela Madsen rowing a craft designed for ocean crossings. www.rowoflife.net is on the hull.

If you’re interested in adaptive sports programs in California, visit National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD). If you’re in the Los Angeles area, join the California Adaptive Rowing Program (CARP)!

Learn more:

Angela Madsen, Paralympian Rower, Dies on Solo Pacific Voyage at 60 (The New York Times)