There's a quote in Latin on Angela Madsen's website: Vita mutatur, non tollitur. "Life is changed, not taken away."
Years ago, Madsen was serving in the Marine Corps when she tripped during a basketball game and injured her back. It damaged her sciatic nerve and ended her military career. In 1993, she had surgery, but it went horribly wrong—she was paralyzed from the waist down. At the time, Madsen says one of her doctors described her condition as "a waste of human life."
"It pissed me off, so it kind of was a precipice or a turning point for me," Madsen told Alex Cohen. "I turned that anger I had towards him into motivation to get moving. I learned it was my responsibility to take charge of my life, to determine who I was going to be, where I was going to go in this new, adapted kind of style."
Before her surgery, Madsen had set a goal to be surfing again within a year. She ended up surfing again, and taking up many more sports.
First, it was the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
"I took off and never looked back after that," Madsen said.
She played wheelchair basketball for a decade, and then she started rowing. Soon after she started rowing, she was recruited to a committee to make adapted rowing a Paralympic sport. She competed in rowing at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. That led her to the field events, shot put and javelin. She competed in shot put and won bronze at the 2012 London Paralympics.
Madsen, now 56, lives in Long Beach but since January, she has been living and training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. As the Paralympics draw closer, Madsen is in a routine at the training center: several hours of training on the field, sports medicine and massage, recovery, followed by several hours of lifting in the gym before she heads back out to the field to throw some more.
"Teams are getting harder to make, we're always setting new world records...just like the Olympians do," Madsen said. "We are Olympians, just without the use of legs or without vision—or without sight. We have plenty of vision."
Though the Rio Paralympics have been dogged with funding issues and low ticket sales, Madsen says she and other athletes are unaffected.
"Paralympic athletes are the most resilient people on the planet," Madsen said. "We've all overcome major obstacles and major adversity to get where we are, so it's not really a problem for us to remain positive even though all this other stuff is going on."
Her goal for now? The podium.
"Gold is best, but just getting on that podium—I'd love to be on the center state and hear the anthem and see the flag raise," Madsen said.
And then it's on to the next goal. Once the Paralympics are over, Madsen will set her sights on a solo trans-Pacific row, from California to Hawaii. She already holds several world records for ocean rowing.
"I'm pretty amazed with myself and the things I've been able to do," Madsen said. "You can choose to remain adrift in life, or you can set a new course and head off in a different direction, which is our own personal responsibility in life. We all have that choice and the power to move ourselves positively forward."
Click the blue audio player to hear the full interview.