05/28/2014 02:15 pm ET Updated May 28, 2014

Formerly Homeless Paraplegic Vet Now Dedicated To Helping Injured Service Members

A physician once told Angela Madsen that her “physical condition is a waste of human life.”

With a "spinal cord injury L1 incomplete" -- which means she has minimal movement and feeling in her legs -- Madsen has written on her website that she knows “what it is to suffer.”

“I know what it is to feel hopeless. I know what it feels like to give up on dreams and goals. I also know what a mistake it is to give up.”

And so, along with fellow distance rower Tara Remington, Madsen, 54, is embarking on an ambitious, 2,560-mile voyage from Long Beach, Calif., to Hawaii -- all in a 19-foot ocean rowboat.

The voyage will take about two months and Madsen is doing it both to raise money for her charity, California Adaptive Rowing Programs, which trains physically and intellectually challenged people to row, and to hopefully inspire injured servicemembers.

A veteran herself -- she was a military police officer in the Marines when she was initially injured during a basketball game almost 35 years ago -- Madsen has adorned her rowboat with photos of servicemembers.

"Our guys just need to know that their life's going to be OK, and that they need to crank it up and find another gear and move positively forward," she told Hawaii's KITV.

Madsen learned this lesson the hard way. After a botched surgery to address her basketball injury, she was confined to a wheelchair. She was depressed and homeless when the support organization Disabled American Veterans (DAV) set her up with a small apartment. On her way to a DAV conference, however, her wheelchair hit a crack and threw her, head-first, onto railroad tracks, where she thought her neck had snapped. When some passersby finally pulled her off the tracks, she realized something very important.

"I hadn't lost everything. I still had more to lose," Madsen said.

Despite her situation, she began to feel grateful for the little she still had left, and she went to work reinventing herself. A natural athlete, she turned to rowing. The California-to-Hawaii trip is her fourth pan-ocean voyage; she was the first woman to row across the Indian Ocean and has set world records for her athletic achievements.

Her nonprofit, she has written, embodies this transformation. Her students, she says, “learn how to live through sport, how to set and accomplish goals, on and off the water in their everyday lives, how to be more outgoing and social, more confident, how to be winners, how to accept losses; they grow and move on with a more positive and enthusiastic outlook for the future.”

With the voyage to Hawaii, Madsen hopes to honor and inspire people just like her.

“I love this life,” she writes. “If I could go back in time and change it, I would not.”

You can keep up with Madsen and Remington’s location with this map.



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