'Fierce' U.S. Paralympian Angela Madsen, 60, Dies at Sea While Rowing Solo Across Pacific Ocean
"In a year of such tumult and bad news, Angela's row was a beacon of light that gave us something inspiring to cheer for," said the athlete's wife
Angela Madsen — a three-time Paralympian aiming to become the first paraplegic, first openly gay athlete, and oldest woman to row across the Pacific Ocean alone — has died at sea. She was 60.
On Tuesday, her wife Debra confirmed the news on Facebook, writing that she last had contact with her via text on Saturday night. Madsen was attempting to row from Los Angeles to Hawaii, and Debra said she became concerned when her tracker appeared to show her RowofLife boat drifting rather than being paddled.
"She was about as far from any land as she could get and the communication can be a challenge, I was hopeful but still had a feeling of heaviness in my chest," wrote Debra.
Documentary filmmaker Soraya Simi, who was chronicling the voyage, contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, according to Debra. A plane conducting a fly-over search located Madsen floating in the water, still tethered to the boat. Her body was recovered on Monday.
"Angela was living her dream. She loved being on the water as you could see from the photos she sent," Debra wrote. "... I am sad but ok. I never planned a life without her so be patient with me while I figure all of this out. Thank you for all your support. Angela was truly touched by your support."
Simi wrote a message to followers on Instagram, saying that it is "extremely hard" to learn that Madsen was declared dead at sea. The filmmaker added that they last heard from Angela that she was "going in the water to fix the anchor on her bow."
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories
"She was prepping it for a storm due to hit by the end of this week. She’d been texting me jokes and seemed to be in her usual high spirits as she was so close to the halfway point and we had a celebration planned," wrote Simi.
"This is the single heaviest moment of my life," Simi added. "I am so sorry and so sad to write this. I know so many of you were cheering her on and wanted her to succeed. We are devastated. This was a clear risk going in since day one, and Angela was aware of that more than anyone else."
Madsen became paralyzed after an unsuccessful back surgery after suffering an injury in 1993 playing basketball while in the Marines, according to a previous Orange County Register profile. She went on to become a decorated shot putter and rower.
Simi said Madsen was so dedicated that "she was willing to die at sea doing the thing she loved most."
"She was a hell of a woman and one of the most influential and inspiring people in my life. I hope to live with a fraction of the fierceness of spirit Angela had," wrote Simi. "I can’t believe she’s gone. Life is so brief and fragile. We must fill it with love."
In a joint statement on Instagram, Debra and Simi said Madsen was a "warrior, as fierce as they come." They added that the athlete overcame a "life forged by unbelievable hardship" to pursue the "exact path she envisioned for herself since she was a little girl."
"In a year of such tumult and bad news, Angela's row was a beacon of light that gave us something inspiring to cheer for," read the statement. "We all wanted her to succeed. We know she could have. How we choose to celebrate her memory can still determine that success."