World Record Rower Revisits the Atlantic

by Rachel Smith
Angela Madsen
There are only nine women in the world who have rowed two oceans, and Angela Madsen is one of them. There is only one woman who has rowed two oceans and completed a rowing circumnavigation of Great Britain; there is only one Angela Madsen, a paraplegic woman who rows across oceans.

On January 8, 2011, Angela will be among 16 highly motivated crew members attempting to break the 33 day world rowing record. They will depart from Agadir, Morocco and row to Port St. Charles, Barbados in the West Indies. For more information on the expedition, visit

Angela is thrilled to be a part of this historic experience, but then she does love a good challenge. Her perspective has always been one of optimism and strength. She says, “Disability is not a death sentence. It does not reduce or diminish someone’s capacity for anything that life has to offer, it only makes other people think that it does.”

Angela sustained a spinal cord injury in 1993. She had surgery on a back injury, which she’d picked up while serving in the military. By all accounts, it seems that during the surgery, if it could go wrong it did, and what should have been a fairly straightforward 4-hour procedure turned into a 10.5-hour disaster. But sadly it didn’t end there and the lengthy time spent in hospital after the botched operation resulted in Angela losing everything and being forced to start over from scratch. 

It took some time, but with the support of family and friends, Angela adjusted to her new life. Being introduced to wheelchair athletics aided Angela’s transition and helped to show Angela what life still offered her.
In 1998 Angela started to play wheelchair basketball for Casa Colina Rehab center in Pomona, California. One day that year, Casa organized a learn to row day for folks with disabilities, as part of their outdoor adventure program. Larry Lonergan of Pacific West Rowing was running the event. Larry was a key person in moving the sport forward, not only in promotion of the sport, but also in design and building of the adaptive equipment for the boats. Casa Colina called Angela and asked if she would attend the event. She loves the water and water sports (Angela currently surfs on her knees para style), so she happily agreed and went to the event. After a little instruction from Larry, Angela tried a few strokes and saw the look of pure astonishment on their faces. Recalls Angela, “I seemed to be a natural at the sport!” 

Larry and his wife Cherie sponsored Angela her first year. She went to Rowing regattas in Indianapolis and Philadelphia. She won all of her races and by year two had her USRowing level 1 coaches certificate. Angela also became a National adaptive rowing committee member, by her second year had obtained her level 2 USRowing coaches credentials and had started the California Adaptive rowing Program in Long Beach.
Angela, the coach with rowing participant
Angela joined Larry in the effort to develop the and grow the sport. It was through her connection with Larry that Angela started ocean rowing, developing connections there and becoming such a leader in adaptive rowing!

Since 1999, Angela has been volunteering as a rowing teacher and coach, and is a founder and director of the California Adaptive Rowing Program (CARP). Her key role is to develop adaptive rowing programs to make the sport more accessible to people. She firmly believes in the power that rowing has from a rehabilitation point of view, something she’s found to be different to some other sports that she’s been involved in, and which her own achievements on the water clearly illustrate.

But it’s still a great step to move from flat water rowing to ocean rowing – a sport that Angela compares to a combination of two sports - rowing and bull riding! Both sports in their own right last only a few minutes, but ocean rowing is like trying to do everything including eating, sleeping and rowing while riding a bull 24 hours a day, for thousands of miles and a couple of months!

Flat water rowing relies on a combination of balance and power to move the boat smoothly through the water. It’s beautiful to watch and takes immense skill to glide along. In contrast, you can count yourself lucky if you have both oars in the water at the same time when ocean rowing! That’s while getting slapped in the face by random waves (and an occasional flying fish), dodging tankers and sometimes wondering whether you’ll actually see tomorrow! It’s definitely not a sport for the feint hearted. 

Originally, Angela’s interest in ocean rowing was to form a fours team to row the North Atlantic. Joe Le Guen, a French man who had rowed the Atlantic twice, and attempted the Pacific, had decided to form an alternatively abled crew to take part in the 2006 race. He’d started to put the crew together when some of Angela’s friends heard about it, and they suggested she might just be crazy enough to be interested. They were right. But even then there were hurdles to cross. Joe was really looking for a male amputee, not a female paraplegic, and it was only after he’d done his homework and looked into Angela’s accomplishments that he agreed she ‘might’ be up to the job.

Together with Franck Festor, a French amputee, Joe visited Angela in California, where Angela took them both rowing and surfing in order to convince them and prove that she was indeed up to the job! She did win them over. So, together with Pierre Denis, a Belgian amputee, they now had their team of four.

Despite training together for a year, circumstances conspired against them and they were unable to take part in the North Atlantic race. The whole team was devastated but later on, and while still disappointed, Angela decided to focus on the original objective of rowing an ocean and started to think about other ways that she might be able to achieve her goal.

The North Atlantic project had introduced Angela to Franck, who she describes as a good man and someone with whom she has a lot in common. They are both stubborn and determined in a good way and for the right reasons, they believe that what they do really matters. They worked together brilliantly as a team, even when they didn’t agree. This like-mindedness made for a strong partnership and together they decided to enter the 2007 Atlantic rowing race as a mixed pair, despite living so far apart and not sharing a common language.

And as if the language and distance wasn’t enough of a challenge, they found it extremely tough financially just to get to the start line. Most ocean rowers will tell you that getting to the start is often the hardest part of the challenge. Perhaps wrongly, Angela, Franck and their supporters had assumed that it would be much easier for a disabled team (as opposed to an able bodied team) to raise sponsorship for the challenge, but as it turned out this was probably the worst and most difficult part of their whole campaign.

Somewhat surprisingly, they also lacked support from the one place they had expected it to come from – that’s their own communities. Angela says it was an eye opening experience to have such little support and acknowledgement from the disabled community. It felt to her as though people were concerned that the pair would let down and embarrass other disabled people if they failed, but that they were equally afraid of the pair succeeding.

Angela and Franck found this all to be extremely disappointing and even hurtful at a time when they really did need support from all around. But the handful of individuals who did help them have been able to share their success and this has made their interactions with the team and campaign much more valuable, allowing them to fully benefit from the team’s success. In contrast this probably makes for the best part of the crossing – even though it was hard at the time, in the long term it was more rewarding. Angela compares it to diving, ‘the higher the degree of difficulty, the greater the score!’

Row of Life did make it onto the water, and Angela says that rowing across the Atlantic left her amazed at the experience and feeling a real sense of accomplishment. She realised right then why so few people do actually row across oceans and what a privilege it is to be one of those few.

But Angela doesn’t stay sitting still for long and after returning home from Antigua. Her next challenge was competing at the Beijing Olympics in the Trunk and Arms mixed double class. There she narrowly missed out on the major final by less than a second, but finished a very respectable 7th overall. After training so hard for so long, even relocating to Philadelphia for several months beforehand, it was another dream come true. Although a medal would have been welcome, and Angela had done everything possible to make that happen, there are a lot of factors that affect the outcome at this level of competition and this time it simply wasn’t to be. However she still acknowledges that it was an awesome experience for her to have worked so hard, made it to elite level as a rower and been able to participate in the Paralympics.

Angela says that we should all allow for possibility and realize that we are unique. Society sometimes sets limits and makes rules that prevents our development and puts in place preconceived ideas about what someone can or can’t accomplish based on a visual assessment of that person. That’s wrong, but happens all too often. The achievement of goals and dreams, and seeking adventure is natural. If the human spirit calls for it, or if a person is born to do it, then a physical or mental challenge will not and should not stop them. Wise words indeed!

You can follow Angela as Msparasurfer on Myspace and Twitter. Her current adventure can be found at Also watch for news of her next big challenge, due to be announced soon! For more information about Angela and to support her projects, visit

1 comment:

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