Madsen rows across Indian Ocean

Oct. 08, 2009, 4:15 p.m. (ET)

Olympians race their skulls 2,000 meters. The Dark Blues and the Light Blues race four miles and 374 yards along the River Thames in the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race.

U.S. Paralympian Angela Madsen races across oceans.

This past summer, Madsen and seven teammates pulled into Port Louis, Mauritius, ending a journey that started 58 days, 15 hours, and 8 minutes earlier on the western coast of Australia.

In completing the journey across the Indian Ocean, the crew skipped by Madsen became the fastest ever to row across that ocean. Madsen herself became the first woman, first disabled and first paraplegic to have rowed across two oceans, as she had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a pairs boat in 2007.

"There is no feeling like getting to the other side of an ocean crossing," Madsen said from her home back in Long Beach, Calif. "You worked so hard and put yourself through so much, it's like, 'Finally there! Yeah!'"

The 49-year-old Madsen isn't one to sugarcoat or over-dramatize her trip. She admits the chemistry wasn't as good as her first ocean crossing, and she's well aware that the most publicity she would ever get from this crossing is if something went wrong.

Still, when she was approached by organizers and asked not just to take part in this race, but to be the skipper, there was little time for hesitation.

Sure, she'd have to spend week after week living on a cramped boat, eating dehydrated food, and sleeping in rotations-during the day, it was two hours on, two hours off. The team rowed at night, and then they'd take shifts-four hours on, four hours off.

She'd also be rowing across another giant span of water with a crew she'd never met before and with no rescue boat in sight.

But it's all about that feeling at the end, when Madsen first rolls her wheelchair onto land, and is so disoriented that she can't even do a wheelie yet.

"I was pretty happy to get off the boat this time," she said.

On her journey across the Indian Ocean though, the boat Audeamus almost had to turn back before it could really get going.

The first couple days of an ocean crossing can sometimes be the hardest, as the crew has to break away from the shelf surrounding the continent. On Day 3 of the Audeamus' journey, Madsen was awakened by a giant wave crashing into the boat.

The boat began to tumble, but it didn't quite capsize. Still, some oars were broken, a sliding seat was lost, and some crewmembers were humbled.

"One guy was holding on just by two fingers," Madsen said. "If he had not been tied to the boat he might have actually died, which struck him."

The final destination was still nearly two months away, but the crew had to continue on. They still had enough working oars, and Madsen attached a wooden plank that had been used to hold the battery in place as a fixed seat. For the remaining 55 days of Madsen's journey, she would call that seat home for 12 hours each day.

"I've trained since 2002 to do fixed-seat rowing," Madsen said of the rowing style powered mostly by the back and arms. "So when we all made the decision I was like, 'this is what I've done for years, it's not going to cause me any debilitating injury if I do this.'"

It did cause soars though. Bad ones. About a week after starting on the wooden plank, Madsen began getting soars on her buttocks, and pretty soon those became infected. It got so bad that the team's medic had to remove some with a scalpel, and Madsen had to temporarily give up her shift.

"You'd think I have a tougher bum from sitting," she said. "But I don't!"

The crew made it through though. Despite setbacks-such as the auto pilot-steering system failing, forcing one person each rotation to skip his or her sleep period and stay on lookout-the crew still made it across the ocean in record time.

For Madsen, rowing and other athletics are her outlets. Madsen became paraplegic following a failed back surgery in 1993.

"On the degree of difficulty, (ocean crossing) doesn't match the difficulty of lying in a hospital bed and losing everything," Madsen said. "That's still the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life. But I'm not the victim in this one, I'm choosing my challenges and I'm taking them on and I'm winning."

Since 1994, Madsen has developed a long list of athletic achievements to her name, starting with wheelchair basketball and surfing. When she contacted a reporter for this story, Madsen (a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps) had just gotten back from the National Veterans Wheelchair Games hosted in Spokane, Wash., where she won two gold medals in swimming and three in field events.

But her most prominent sport is rowing, where she is a seven-time adaptive national team member and 2008 Paralympian (she finished seventh in adaptive double sculls in Beijing).

Rowing across an ocean-which she describes as like riding a bull for 3,000 miles over a couple of months-is just a whole new beast.

"I love being out there and I love doing crossings," she said. "It's something that is really hard to do and it hurts, but for as hard as it is, it's an experience that is kind of unmatched to anything else that I have done."

So what's next, the Pacific?

Actually, maybe.

Rowers reach an elite status once they have been spent more than 250 days at sea. So far, Madsen has 126 days and three hours, officially. Getting that status is definitely on Madsen's radar.

Whether it would be the Pacific or another crossing of the Atlantic-she has been offered an opportunity to revisit the Atlantic later this year with a crew of 12 women-is to be decided.

"I don't know if I would do a whole entire Pacific crossing or just to Hawaii," Madsen said. "My friend Roz Savage is attempting it now in three stages. First to Hawaii, then to Hulu or Samoa, then to New Zealand-about three ocean crossings of the same distance that I've already done. About 3,000 miles each.

"I'm thinking I can row to Hawaii and probably be happy with that, or maybe go revisit the Atlantic with a group of women. We'll see. I know I'm going to have to stop doing this at some point because it's getting hard; well, it's always been hard, but I'm almost 50 now!"

Madsen will celebrate her 50th birthday in May.

Madsen's dream would be to cross an ocean solo, but she says her disability precludes her from doing that. Although she holds out hope that she might be able to do a solo crossing with an aide, if the aide doesn't do any rowing.

Regardless, one thing is sure: Madsen won't be out of the water long.

"It's kind of awesome that they consider me for the speed record attempts and that they consider me for crews of people who don't have disabilities and who are just trying to set records," Madsen said. "It's awesome to be a part of that."

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Chrös McDougall is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

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