Angela Madsen: Once a Marine – Today an Internationally-Known Rower

by Allison

Editor’s Note: Sleeping on park benches as a homeless person and having all her worldly belongings stored in a small locker just outside Disneyland, Angela Madsen of Long Beach, California, was seriously considering suicide. She’d been a Marine, an elite athlete, a successful businesswoman and a mother. She wondered why her life had taken such a tragic turn. Part 1 of a 4-part series.

Angela is proud of her military background as a Marine.

Angela is proud of her military background as a Marine.

The entire world cheers when an athlete stands on the podium to accept first-place prize for a difficult race. Yet often the race for success in our lives is through dangerous waters and various disasters.

Today, Madsen is one of the most successful rowers in the world, having rowed across the Atlantic and Indian oceans besides accomplishing numerous other rowing feats. She’s also the recipient of the Amateur Athletic Foundation’s Women Who Inspire Us Award and the Leo Reilly, Jr., Award for outstanding spirit and determination.

In sharing Angela’s story, we’ll first find out what happened when Madsen was a top-level basketball player, because at the time she had no idea what lay ahead as she would become homeless, face death and then reach the pinnacle of endurance and speed in her chosen sport. Madsen’s philosophy is to never allow her disabilities to stop her.

Question: Angela, why did you join the Marine Corps?

Madsen: I played sports my entire life, and at 17-years old, I became a single parent. That sort of took me out of the chance for an athletic scholarship for college, because I had to take care of my daughter. My father and my oldest brother had been in the Navy, and three of my other brothers were in the Marines. So, naturally when my brothers told me I couldn’t make it as a Marine, I made joining the Marine Corps a high priority in my life.

Question: Is it fair to say that when someone tells you that you can’t do something, you want to prove that you can?

Madsen: Yeah, I guess that’s right. That’s why I enlisted in the Marine Corps. My daughter stayed with my parents until I got out of basic training, and then she came to live with me. The Marine Corps provided me with a job and housing for me and my daughter.

Question: What did you do in the Marine Corps?

Angela joined the US Marines right after high school.

Angela joined the US Marines right after high school.

Madsen: I was a military police officer. I went to Fort McClellan in Alabama to military police school. Because I had a child and was a single parent, I went into the Marine Corps with a waiver, which was like an open contract, so they put me where they thought I’d fit best. They chose military police (MP) for me. I’m a little over six-feet-tall, and because of that I’d always played sports in high school. I participated in swimming, diving and basketball, but my best sport was volleyball. With five brothers and a younger sister, I played all the sports with the boys. After I finished training, my duty station was the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine, California. When I reached my duty station, I started playing basketball at my post. The team needed a center, and I needed a sport to play.

Question: How did you do in basketball?

Madsen: Our team at El Torowas invited to go to the Marine Corps West Coast Regional Basketball Tournament. At that tournament, scouts from the women’s Marine Corps basketball team evaluated the players. I was selected to play on the women’s Marine Corps team. I was ecstatic. I was playing sports again at the elite level. My job was to workout, train and play basketball. That job was like heaven to me. My life was perfect. I had a home for my daughter and me, and my job was playing basketball. I thought life couldn’t get any better. I was getting paid to do what I’d have done for nothing.

When I finished playing basketball, I’d go back to my regular job as an MP, which I also really enjoyed. The training was physical, and it involved going to the rifle range. I liked being a MP and saw myself making a career out of playing basketball on the women’s team and possibly coaching when my playing days ended. I thought I’d retire and have a great life.

Angela prepared through military training for her future journey in the Row of Life boat

Angela prepared through military training for her future journey in the Row of Life boat

Question: Yet, often when someone reaches the mountaintop, there are steep slopes all the way around it that reach the bottom of the valley. Angela, what happened in your case?

Madsen: In my first Marine Corps practice basketball game in 1980, I went up for a rebound and fell on my face. Someone stepped on my back and ruptured two of my discs. I felt like I’d been struck by lightning. There was intense pain, and I couldn’t move my legs. I was put in a helicopter to go to Camp Pendleton to be treated and that’s when my present journey began.

See Angela share this story on video as she was interviewed during a rowing event in Morocco.


Next: Internationally-Known Rower Angela Madsen Approached the Valley of the Shadow of Death

About the Author: For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at

Categories: Adaptive Sports

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