Jenn's journey for charity

Chicago woman completes emotional voyage around Lake Michigan

August 14, 2012|Chicago Tribune

Chicago rowing coach and charity founder Jenn Gibbons finished her 1,500-mile rowing journey around the perimeter of Lake Michigan on Tuesday, about a month after she was sexually assaulted in her boat during the trip.

"Thank you for welcoming me to Chicago," a grinning Gibbons told dozens of supporters outside of the Chicago Yacht Club.

Before she docked her boat, Gibbons took a moment to wave a Chicago flag given to her by Mayor Emanuel, which drew cheers and clapping.

She quickly tied her rowboat, Liv, to the pier and then embraced her teammates with a group hug.

Following the assault, Gibbons docked her boat for almost a week as she spoke with investigators about the incident.

To make up for lost time, she decided to bike more than 500 miles from Manistique, Mich., to Muskegon, Mich., until she was back on schedule, hitting 80 to 90 miles on average per day.

Gibbons said she had only biked about 30 miles in one sitting before and had to quickly learn how to navigate her bicycle, which she named Liv 2. Her teammates and friends back in Chicago provided moral and emotional support, especially those who joined her on the biking adventure, she said.

"Certainly there were people that would say to me ... that I don't have to keep going, that I can go home," she said. "But then I think I just got kind of defensive ... once I decided to keep going, it was what I was going to do."

Gibbons, 27, recently was named one of 20 inspiring women by Today's Chicago Woman magazine. She departed June 15 in her bright yellow vessel, planning to stop in 10 port towns to raise money for her charity, Recovery on Water, and highlight the role exercise plays in the fight against breast cancer.

Before she left, she packed 210 dehydrated meals and hundreds of Luna bars into her boat. She was in the cabin of the 700-pound rowboat while it was tied to a dock early in July when she was assaulted. Details of the attack, in an area along Lake Michigan in Schoolcraft County, Mich., were withheld because the investigation is ongoing.

Though shaken, Gibbons worked with detectives and reached out to the news media to help find her attacker. Her primary concern, she said, was starting the healing process and finishing what she had begun.

"I've trained enough physically, spiritually and mentally," Gibbons said two days after the assault, by phone. "Every single day I have had ups and downs. I'm constantly improvising. I've trained well. This just requires pushing through an obstacle that's bigger than the rest."

Gibbons posted a statement on her Facebook page and on the site row4row.org vowing to continue her journey. Within hours she had 60 missed phone calls and had received hundreds of emails. Support came from a wide range of people: friends, strangers, breast cancer survivors and victims of sexual assault, she said.

"Because this has been such a public thing from the start and I have an audience, I think it's important that I share [what happened]," she said at the time. "When I do share, people have been able to relate and gain some kind of strength or inspiration from what I've been going through. And it helps me share too."

While she continued her trip, Gibbons said she would make some changes to ensure her safety, including that she no longer would travel alone.

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