The women came from Chicago, Evanston and Oak Park, and at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday they were under a tent at the Chicago Yacht Club, glowing in readiness to see their coach return. There were around 30 of them, all breast cancer survivors, all of them wearing shirts promoting either their group, Recovery on Water, or their group's co-founder, Jenn Gibbons.
One woman arrived with a bouquet of flowers. She walked up the steps from the dock to the yacht club's back patio where the tent was set up and embraced her friends. She locked eyes with a woman with short gray hair, and then smiled. "Hair," she said, touching her hand to her mouth. "You've got hair." The woman with the short gray hair smiled and said, "Yes, I do."
Nearby, a group of high school rowers whom Gibbons also coaches were looking south toward the Adler Planetarium, where Gibbons would soon be starting her final row. On the club's south side, camera crews setting up their shots for Gibbons' approach.
Further south along the lake sat a solitary woman in a Door County hoodie. She had never met Gibbons, but she found her story online and drove from her home in Schaumburg to sit on a dock and cheer for a stranger.
At 9:50 a.m., Gibbons appeared. She was rowing in her trademark bright yellow boat, her brown hair stretching past her shoulders. From the docks perhaps 200 yards away, the echoes of "GO ROW!" and "YAY JENN!" reached the boat. Upon hearing them, Jenn stood, picked up a massive Chicago flag sent and signed by Mayor Emanuel, turned toward the group and began waving the flag to greater and greater cheers.
She sat back down and resumed rowing, those long strokes deep in the blue, and the woman from Schaumburg clapped and took photos as Gibbons rowed past her.
The mass of supporters was now clustered on the north dock, a T-formation that juts about 50 yards perpendicular from the side of the club, and they clapped and cheered as Gibbons made her approach.
Then the crowd quieted. It seemed to take forever for the little boat to maneuver all the way around, and the people watched her strokes and saw the intensity in her eyes as she angled toward land. At the foot of the dock was Mark Carroll, her coach, who leaned forward, took her oar by the blade and pulled the boat close.
Gibbons stood, smiling and quiet. She brushed her hair from her eyes and seemed not to notice the semi-circle of cameramen behind Carroll, and she and Carroll dutifully secured the oars and tied the boat to the posts.
After a minute of silence she caught eyes with the women of ROW. Her arms shot above her head. "Woooooo!" she exclaimed, and the crowd joined. Carroll gave her his hand as she stepped onto the deck, and she hugged him and thanked him and then walked up the steps past the cameras and straight to her women, each the other's inspiration. And they stepped forward, one by one, to hug their coach.
Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. Say hey @ReadJack.