Angela Madsen celebrates at the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008 on Sept. 11, 2008 in Beijing.
As Lyn Krahulec rowed across Lake Ontario back in August, her thoughts turned to her first coach, her son and other close family and friends.
Perhaps more than anyone, she also thought of Angela Madsen.
Despite having never met the Paralympic legend who died earlier in the summer at the age of 60 while attempting to row solo from California to Hawaii, Krahulec considers her an inspiration. She was moved to undertake crossing the Great Lake, a longtime idea in her mind, after learning of Madsen’s passing.
“In the water, in the middle of that space with no horizons, and it hurts, and there’s the wind...that’s just a little smidgen of what she was experiencing,” Krahulec said.
A native of Port Colborne, Ontario, right on the edge of Lake Erie and close to Buffalo, New York, Krahulec is a longtime rower. Even after moving to Arizona she continued with the sport and has been rowing competitively in Masters races for about 10 years now.
She first learned of Madsen after a friend told her about the Pacific crossing attempt.
Madsen was serving in the U.S. Marine Corps when she suffered a back injury in 1981 while playing basketball. Years later, at the age of 31, Madsen underwent a botched back surgery that left her a paraplegic, and in the years that followed she lost her job and her marriage and suffered from depression and homelessness.
After being introduced to wheelchair basketball through the National Veterans Games in 1998, Madsen soon learned about adaptive rowing. By 2002 she was competing in the World Rowing Championships and in 2008 she made her Paralympic debut in rowing, competing in mixed double sculls in Beijing.
Madsen later got involved in track and field and competed in both the Paralympic Games London 2012, where she won the bronze medal in shot put, and in Rio in 2016, competing in both shot put and javelin.
She also became involved in open water rowing. She crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice and the Indian Ocean once, and in 2013 had to be rescued from her first attempt to cross the Pacific after getting caught in a storm. All those attempts were with other rowers, but this past spring she set off on a second attempt to cross the Pacific, this time all alone.
She left Marina Del Rey near Los Angeles in late April, hoping to land in Hawaii in July.
Krahulec was one of many following her journey via social media.
It was during that time that Krahulec made her annual summer return to the Niagara area and was quarantining alone for two weeks as part of COVID-19 precautions. As she sat one night staring up at the sky, she saw a shooting star and thought of Madsen, alone in the ocean.
Followers could send Madsen texts, Krahulec said, that would then ding off the satellite and allow them to know just where she was. She decided to send one.
“I don’t know the woman, but I write, ‘Hi, I’m Lyn,’” she said. “Really briefly I told her about the shooting star and don’t you know, she responds. You’re like, wow, this person is in the middle of the ocean, I’m here, but we’re connected. It was about shooting stars, and we’d connected over text.”
The more Krahulec read about Madsen, the more she was amazed by her story. Krahulec is a mental health counselor who owns her own practice in Arizona, and understands how difficult it must have been for Madsen to turn her life around so dramatically.
She also began to gain an appreciation for how many people Madsen touched, not only through her story but also her actions, including founding the California Adaptive Rowing Program and sharing her love of sports with others.
Krahulec, who always had a safety boat nearby, wrote the names of people who inspired her on her own boat before taking off from Port Dalhousie to row the nearly 30 miles into Toronto Harbor. Madsen’s name was in the middle.
“I kept thinking, how does she go out there by herself and not be afraid?” Krahulec said. “But you just look at the water in front of you and take one row at a time. Then it’s not scary because it’s just wherever you are in life. In that moment, it didn’t turn out to be scary at all. I don’t think people would know that unless they did it.”
Krahulec’s accomplishment was small compared to some of what Madsen did in her life, she said, but it was big for her. Her first rowing coach unsuccessfully attempted the same journey more than 40 years earlier and current coach Walt Krawec, who accompanied her along with a safety boat, became just the second man to do it in 2018.
Krahulec is the first woman to successfully make the trip in a single scull.
Madsen would have been the first paraplegic athlete, first openly gay athlete and oldest woman to row from California to Hawaii. She was roughly 60 days and 1,100 miles into the trip when she said she was entering the water to make repairs, and then she stopped communicating. Her wife later announced via social media that the Coast Guard had found Madsen lifeless in the water, tethered to her boat.
Not long after, Krahulec began planning her trip. She said she later sent an article about her journey to Madsen’s wife.
“She responded and told me that Angela was born in Ohio and that she’d be very pleased because she really wanted to do the Great Lakes one day,” Krahulec said. “That was really cool.”