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Chicago woman completes rowing trip for charity despite sex assault

Jenn Gibbons founder Recovery Water (ROW) rowing team for breast cancer survivors is greeted by family friends as she arrives

Jenn Gibbons, founder of Recovery on Water (ROW), a rowing team for breast cancer survivors, is greeted by family and friends as she arrives back in Chicago. Tuesday, August 14, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 16, 2012 6:13AM

Neither 25-knot winds nor six-foot waves nor a sexual attack in the dark of night would stop Jenn Gibbons from making it around Lake Michigan — 1,500 miles by rowboat and bicycle to raise cash for breast cancer survivors.

And that changed her life forever.

“I’m trying to soak up and remember all the beautiful, trying, surreal, tough, amazing, life changing moments, people and experiences that have made up the last two months of my life,” Gibbons posted on Facebook Monday along with a photo of a not-so-distant view of Chicago’s skyline.

And on Tuesday morning, Gibbons finally docked her ocean-worthy rowboat at the Chicago Yacht Club, where folks on land welcomed her home like a hero. There were cheers, hugs and a few tears, joyful ones.

Gibbons returned home more than just an adventurous philanthropist who set out June 15 on a rowboat to raise money for Recovery on Water, the charity rowing team she founded to help improve the lives of breast cancer survivors through exercise.

A defining moment

In the wee hours July 22 on a stretch of remote shoreline in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Gibbons awoke to the sound of someone boarding the boat.

What happened next unfolded like a scene out of a horror movie.

A stranger — whom Michigan State Police described as a white man in his 30s, about six feet tall with an athletic build, stubbly beard and light eyes who remains on the loose — forced his way inside and sexually assaulter her.

While the man attacked Gibbons, he called her by her name.

“And he told me he knew where to find me,” Gibbons said Tuesday.

When the attack was over, Gibbons punched the man in the chest and ran. She tried to lock herself in a wooden outhouse but her attacker forced his way inside. She fought him off until he fled in a yellow Jeep Wrangler that had a yellow smiley face on the spare tire cover and, possibly, Illinois license plates, police said.

Gibbons ran to the boat, locked herself in the cabin and called 911. Police have not arrested anyone in connection with the attack, yet.

Two days later, Gibbons made a decision that would become a defining moment in her life.

“I could come home and no one would question it,” Gibbons told the Sun-Times that day. “But what happened will not define my trip.”

‘Stronger than I thought’

And the word “victim” wouldn’t define her, either.

“Yes, that was a hard day, but it was a really important day,” Gibbons said after the attack. “That day didn’t change my trip. It will change security measures we take and it will change my ability to trust strangers the way I have in the past. This was a huge setback, something I didn’t expect. . . . I have to improvise. Things happen and you have to figure out a way to get through it and come out stronger in the end.”

The journey had to continue on. She rode a bicycle 500 miles and then got back in the boat and followed the shoreline home. Along the way, friends and supporters joined her on the bike ride and townsfolk in Michigan and Indiana Beach towns — Grand Haven, South Haven, St. Joseph, Michigan City — cheered her on. Donations rolled in.

The final so far was more than $113,000 — about $30,000 more than when she started the trip and about $40,000 short of her ultimate goal. Donations are still coming in at

Gibbons is home, but her journey isn’t over.

She hasn’t really had time or energy to really deal with the emotional scars of that horror-filled night in the U.P.

It will be difficult, but she can do it.

Her voyage around the lake taught her that.

“I learned about myself and I learned that I’m extremely strong,” she said Tuesday. “And a lot stronger than I thought I was.”

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