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Chicago rower for cancer survivors finds strength after rape

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Updated: August 10, 2012 10:40PM



SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. — Jenn Gibbons waited, longer than she should have, by her own estimation. She stared at the numbers on her cell phone — 9-1-1 — but hesitated to hit send.

She was stunned and alone on a desolate stretch of beach in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, trying to comprehend what had just happened. She had been raped, she says, surprised by an attacker who had crept aboard her one-person rowboat in the middle of the night and forced his way into the boat’s cabin, where Gibbons had been sleeping, peacefully lulled by the waves.

She didn’t have to make that call, Gibbons told herself. She was scared and embarrassed.

She contemplated just grabbing her oars and rowing the 20 or so miles it would take to get to Beaver Island, in northern Lake Michigan. That would have been the next stop in her attempt to row the entire perimeter of the lake by herself. She began the 1,500-mile solo journey in June to raise money to buy boats for a Chicago rowing team she co-founded for breast cancer survivors.

Gibbons stared again at the phone.

“No one would have to know,” she remembers thinking.

Then she thought about those survivors on the team, 50 women, from their 30s to their 70s, all different but each tough in her own way. She thought about the difficulties she’d overcome in planning this trip — challenges finding sponsors, and the training and the sweat — and how she’d shared all of that with her team and supporters over the last two years.

Grasping the phone, she called the police.

In the days that followed, she also went public about the assault, partly in hopes of helping police find her attacker.

And she resolved to find a way to finish the trip, to eventually get back in her boat. She had to row. She had to finish, somehow.

“I’ve got this,” she told her team, using the three-word catchphrase that had long been the mantra of her trip.

Though it wouldn’t be easy, she knew she had to face adversity, just as they do.

“I work with women who come to practice one week after losing their hair in chemo the week before, and they row — and that’s how they cope,” Gibbons explained. “So I think that just being around them, and just being immersed in the strength that they have — it’s rubbed off on me a lot more than I think I recognized.”

———

Recovery on Water , or ROW, was the name chosen when Gibbons co-founded the team five years ago.

Besides working with the cancer survivors, she took on the role of coaching a novice group of high school boys. She turned some of those boys and other teens into volunteer coaches for ROW.

This was not a woman who took “no” for an answer, says Mark Carroll, a friend and fellow rowing coach.

“She’s stubborn — in a good way,” Carroll says, smiling.

After she revealed the attack and her determination to finish her Lake Michigan trip, he quickly agreed to be part of a group that would accompany her.

The trip couldn’t continue exactly as before. The coast from the Upper Peninsula and along Michigan’s northwest lower peninsula was too remote to guarantee her safety.

Her attacker remains at large. Investigators believe he found Gibbons by tracking her location on her trip blog, then traveled a long distance to find her, possibly from Illinois, where her journey has gotten a lot of attention.

She and her support team came up with an alternate plan: Gibbons and a small group of people would ride bicycles together, along more than 350 miles of coastline to Muskegon, Mich. There, she would reunite with her boat, and then row toward Chicago, one port at a time, with a plan of arriving back home in mid-August.

Her progress on the bike was quick. The attack happened July 22. By Aug. 1, she managed to make it to her boat, which her father had cleaned up for her and towed to Muskegon.

It was an emotional reunion. Police had dusted the boat for fingerprints, and even now, as she rows toward Chicago, she still occasionally finds small remnants of the black fingerprinting chalk.

“It’s always a reminder of what happened,” she says.

She loves her bright yellow boat, named “Liv,” which means “life” or “protector” in Norwegian. It’s ironic, she knows. But she wouldn’t change the name, even if she wanted to — that’s bad luck in maritime lore.

Still, she no longer sleeps on the boat when she comes into harbors along the way home. She only goes in the boat’s cabin, where the attack happened, when she absolutely has to.

She relishes her time alone on the water.

But when she’s not out there, Carroll and others are almost always with her. Marine patrols and the Michigan State Police also monitor her movement, while investigators await results from lab tests on forensic evidence and continue the search for her attacker. Most of the tips they’ve received so far relate to a yellow Jeep that Gibbons thinks he used to flee the scene, says Michigan State Police Sgt. Michael Powell. They also released a sketch of the suspect, based on Gibbons’ description of him.

———

Along the way, Gibbons has continued to process the attack — and to address it.

At a recent stop in South Haven, she spoke to a group of more than 100 people who’d gathered at a church to see her — many of them friends and family but some strangers, too.

“Maybe you’re here because you’ve pursued a dream and it didn’t execute perfectly on time or the way that you thought it would,” she told them.

“Maybe you’re here because you have yet to pursue a dream and it’s inspiring to see someone struggle, rise and then repeat that process ....”

She paused, pushing her hair off her forehead, and began again, her voice shaking very slightly.

“You could be here because you are a victim of sexual assault and my voice, my sharing, is helpful or healing,” she said.

SHE was there, she told them, because she believes in finishing what she started.

“I’m here because even though I have reasons not to, I am full of hope for humanity.

“Just look around,” she said. “You are my hope.”

There were tears that evening, but also a lot of laughter. Gibbons joked frequently about her voracious appetite — about longing for sustenance other than energy bars and sports drinks — and poked fun at herself for her foibles, sharing a story about the time she had to have her boat towed back to shore after initially declining offers for help as bad weather approached.

Listeners chuckled, and Gibbons seemed genuinely relieved to share a few light moments with them. “It feels so good to laugh,” she said.

Her frequent upbeat demeanor since the attack has caught some people off guard, but not those who know her.

“We all know that Jenn can smile through anything. It’s not superficial. It’s down deep,” one supporter wrote on the website for Gibbons’ trip, which she calls Row 4 ROW. http://www.row4row.org

But it doesn’t mean there’s no pain or anger, Gibbons says, especially when she’s had to pore over suspects’ mug shots and spend hours with investigators reliving an attack that she says lasted about 20 minutes.

“I don’t smile all the time. Ask Mark. He’s seen the good times and the bad times,” Gibbons says, as she stands on her boat, prepping it for another day’s journey. Carroll, who’s sitting nearby, nods to confirm this.

The extra attention she’s been getting, from media and supporters, also has occasionally caused her to second-guess her decision to share her attack with the world.

“It’s overwhelming...,” she says. “I can’t get my head around the fact that there are thousands of people who know about what happened to me and are using that as inspiration.”

She continues to preach her original message for this trip — that exercise can significantly improve breast cancer patients’ chances of survival. She raised tens of thousands of dollars for the boats for the team, even before the attack.

But, slowly, she is learning to accept and understand this new role, as a survivor of sexual assault.

One mother, who said her daughter was the target of severe bullying at school, wrote this on Gibbons’ Facebook page:

“After reading your blog, my daughter turned to me and said, ‘This lady survived the most extreme act of bullying a woman could face — and look how she is handling it. She is a hero.’

The mom continued, “To hear such positive words from her after months of deep depression and an overwhelming sense of unworthiness has meant more than I could possibly tell you.”

This trip has, indeed, become about even more than fighting cancer or big waves.

For Gibbons, a team of women who “stare cancer — their Kryptonite, their attacker — in the eye every week by getting in a boat and fighting back,” may have taught her something about strength.

But now she is teaching them, they say

“She shows us how to endure,” says Kelly Anderson, a 46-year-old cancer survivor and rower on the team.

And so the lesson has come full circle, just as Gibbons’ journey will do when she arrives next week in Chicago, where her trip began.



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