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Chicago Tribune, Published August 14 2012

Woman finishes rowing journey a month after being sexually assaulted during trip

CHICAGO — Chicago rowing coach and charity founder Jenn Gibbons anticipated obstacles during her 1,500-mile trek around Lake Michigan, but not the personal challenges that came along the way.

A barefooted Gibbons, 27, hugged her crying teammates, many cancer survivors, moments after docking her yellow rowboat Tuesday at the Chicago Yacht Club. She said they gave her strength during her near two-month journey, where she raised $113,000 for her nonprofit but also endured her grandmother’s death and the horror of being sexually assaulted.

“Certainly there were people that would say to me … that I don’t have to keep going, that I can go home,” Gibbons 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 left Chicago on June 15 aiming to spread awareness and raise money for her nonprofit, a rowing team for breast cancer survivors called Recovery on Water. She stopped in towns looking to recruit new members and advocated for exercise.

Early on, she chronicled her adventures online, writing about soreness, GPS glitches and 6-foot waves that made rowing impossible some days. She even blogged about her grandmother’s death in mid-July, just weeks after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

Gibbons’ spirit was tested again five weeks into the trip. She was sexually assaulted on her boat while it was docked along Lake Michigan in Schoolcraft County, Mich. Michigan State Police on Tuesday declined to release further details, saying they are still investigating the July 22 incident.

The news horrified her friends, family and teammates. Rowing team members said they felt helpless and angry for Gibbons, who has given a new level of inspiration and hope to the organization’s breast cancer survivors.

“If anybody on this team ever got a hold of him … he would regret it,” said an emotional Beth Geiger, 58, a member of the team. “The women on this team would just tear him apart for what he did to her.”

Gibbons was initially unsure if she should tell her supporters about what happened and if she should continue, but ultimately decided to forge on and carry out her mission.

For safety reasons, she stopped posting her location on her website. She also biked more than 500 miles from Manistique, Mich., to Muskegon, Mich., to make up for lost time.

Though she had hardly any biking experience, Gibbons pedaled 80 to 90 miles a day, learning how to shift her bike’s gears and keep herself injury-free. Friends and former rowing teammates joined her on the journey, either biking or driving alongside to ensure she stayed safe.

Gibbons said the funds she raised will go toward buying new equipment for ROW and helping the organization grow. She said she has no regrets about the trip and feels she’s accomplished her goals.

In the months to come, she said, she will lean on writing and the encouragement of those around her for support.

“I don’t get to pick all the roles I stepped into, but I’m still here doing what I’m doing,” Gibbons said. “I’m still healing and using exercise to recover.”