Twin brothers Gabe and Mason Madsen were 9 years old when they first became social activists.
They were in second grade when they joined their parents (Luke and Jennifer) and older sister (Hattie) to protest at the Capitol Building in Madison, Wis.
That was a decade ago and since then a lot has happened to shape the minds, views and opinions of the two 2020 Rochester Mayo High School grads. The Madsen twins are elite basketball players who are now freshmen on the University of Cincinnati men’s team.
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The 2020 year proved to be tumultuous in many ways and the Madsens stepped up and made their voices heard. They had been taught at a young age to speak out for what they believe in and they had plenty of opportunities the past year.
“I think it’s something we’ve always been kind of aware of,” Gabe said. “Just our parents, just who they are. They’re teachers and so it’s something we’ve been aware of since we were young.”
That first protest was because Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a law that severely cut the power of teachers' unions to collectively bargain.
“At that point it was standing up for what’s right, public education and how important teachers are,” Mason said. “That was a completely different topic than this year, but I think that’s kind of where I got my voice and where I found my voice. It started at a young age.”
Finding their voice
As the Madsen twins emerged as standout basketball players over the years, they realized that they might have a bigger outreach to people. They moved from Wisconsin to Rochester three years ago when Luke Madsen became the Spartans’ head coach. Gabe and Mason were Mayo’s top two scorers each of the past three seasons.
“I would say that I’m a pretty empathic person and I want the best for people,” Gabe said. “I would say I’m in a better position because I have a somewhat bigger following on social media.”
Mason said he wants to speak out on what he feels is right “just because not everyone else has that voice. Having gained the platform that I have over the past couple of years, I guess it ties into basketball a little bit — just getting my name out there — gaining that platform gives me a little bigger voice so I want to use it to positively impact other people.”
The Madsen twins were very involved in the Black Lives Matter protests in the Twin Cities and Rochester. Minneapolis became a hot spot for protests in May and June after George Floyd died of cardiopulmonary arrest after a Minneapolis police officer held a knee to his throat for more than nine minutes.
Gabe and Mason went to three different protests in the Twins Cities and two more in Rochester during 2020. Gabe was also instrumental in raising funds in Rochester and taking food and other supplies to the Twin Cities.
“I feel for me, going up to the Cities right after the George Floyd thing happened, I think that was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had,” Mason said. "And although it was super sad, it was very moving to be part of it and know that all those people are fighting for the right cause.”
“I would say this summer — it was such a worldly event — it probably sticks out the most since it was basically in our backyard,” Gabe said. “That was like a driving force for all the protests.”
Off to China
Traveling has also been a big reason Gabe and Mason Madsen want to stand up for what they believe is right. The family has taken numerous summer trips throughout the country, but the Madsens also spent a year in China when the twins were in fifth grade and sister Hattie was in seventh grade.
“I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything because I just feel like I learned so much,” Mason said.
“The fact that we moved to China when I was in fifth grade, that helped me get a more worldly view,” Gabe added. “It made me more aware of what was out there and wanting the best for humanity.
“It was definitely very eye opening.”
Part of that “eye-opening” experience was seeing that others don’t always have the same freedoms as Americans. The Madsens have also traveled to Canada and the Philippines.
“I think the biggest thing about travel is you gain a different perspective,” Mason said. “By living there, China is a completely different place, and not to talk down on it, but people just don’t have the voice that we have here.”
“Just wanting the best for people, I definitely feel like it extends from those travels,” Gabe said. “And making me be who I am, like I would say I'm an empathic person and feeling more connected with people.”
Gabe and Mason are currently busy with the grind of college basketball so they can’t be as socially active as they would like. But they did get to take part in one student-athlete protest at the beginning of the school year, which featured a march on campus that concluded with people speaking at the football stadium.
Like everyone else, they also had to deal with COVID-19 in 2020. The pandemic had a major impact on the Mayo boys basketball team as the season was called off in March right before the Spartans were to face Lakeville South in the Section 1AAAA championship game.
“That still lingers a little bit, I’m not going to lie,” Mason said. “I’m not sure if that will ever sit well with me.”
“The day it happened, I said I would have rather played and lost than to find out it was just cancelled,” Gabe said. “It was just having no closure with those guys (his teammates).”
For now the twins are concentrating on earning playing time at Cincinnati. Mason has had an injured ankle and has yet to play. Gabe has appeared in two of the Bearcats’ seven games as a reserve guard.
In the future, Mason, who wants to be a basketball coach, and Gabe will continue to try to speak out for what they believe are injustices in the world.
“I feel like this is something that will never leave me,” Mason said. “Having been in this position at a young age, I feel like that sets me up for the rest of my life. And that’s something I’m grateful for too, the fact that I found my voice at a young age.”
“I want to fight for what is right,” Gabe said. “I don’t know what I want to do someday, but I definitely know it will be something along those lines, wanting to help people.”
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PAST SPORTS PEOPLE OF THE YEAR
2020 — Southeastern Minnesota senior athletes.
2019 — Alyssa Ustby, Lourdes multi-sport star.
2018 — Marcus Sherels, John Marshall, Gophers and Vikings football.
2017 — Brady Berge, Kasson-Mantorville wrestling.
2016 — Lucas Schott, USRA racing national champion.
2015 — Andrianna Jacobs, Rochester Century multi-sport star.
2014 — Maddie Damon, Kasson-Mantorville softball.
2013 — Sam Stoll, Kasson-Mantorville wrestling.
2012 — Mitch Brown, Rochester Century and professional baseball.
2011 — Caleb Leichtnam, Grand Meadow and RCTC football.
2010 — Aaron Senne, Rochester Mayo and professional baseball.
2009 — Maggie McNamara, Zumbrota-Mazeppa and Concordia St. Paul volleyball.
2008 — Alex Kangas, Century and Gophers hockey.
2007 — Zach Sanders, Wabasha-Kellogg and Gophers wrestling.
2006 — Ed Hruska, Rochester Amateur Sports Commission director.