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Sex assault won’t stop Chicago woman’s row for charity

Jenn Gibbons aboard her vessel Liv which she’s rowing around Lake Michigan raise money for breast cancer survivors.

Jenn Gibbons aboard her vessel, Liv, which she’s rowing around Lake Michigan to raise money for breast cancer survivors.

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Updated: August 26, 2012 6:24AM

Jenn Gibbons rowed alone.

On the worst days, she harnessed all her might, all her will, muscling headlong into 25-knot winds and six-foot swells on a 1,500-mile voyage around Lake Michigan that she hoped would raise cash — $150,000 or so — for the charity she founded to help breast cancer survivors live healthier lives.

The 27-year-old Groupon customer-service agent had trained for this adventure, which had become more of personal mission. Nothing would stop her. In fact, when her bosses refused to give her time off, she quit.

Before she set out from Chicago on June 15, Gibbons worried about the weather or that something would go wrong on the 19-foot ocean-rated rowboat that she bought from adventurer Paul Ridley, who had rowed it across the Atlantic in 2009.

“Liv” — that’s the boat’s name — means “life” or “protector” in Norwegian.

“I felt safe in the cabin,” Gibbons said, “or I thought I was.”

But in the wee hours of July 22, Gibbons awoke to the sound of someone boarding the boat, which she had docked near a lighthouse on a stretch of remote shoreline in unincorporated Schoolcraft County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She rushed to lock the cabin door, but the stranger forced his way inside and sexually assaulter her, police said.

Gibbons screamed. No one could hear her.

“I was out in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “It was terrifying.”

As she was being assaulted, her attacker — 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 — 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 said.

Investigators think the attacker may have tracked Gibbons’ trip using a map that updated her whereabouts on the website sponsored by the charity, Recovery on Water, at

On Tuesday, investigators released a sketch of the man and continued their search for clues. Gibbons told her story and made plans to resume her trip on Wednesday.

“I could come home and no one would question it,” she said. “But what happened will not define my trip.”

Gibbons said that she’s physically healthy and trying to cope with the horror of all she has been through while cooperating with authorities in hopes that they’ll catch her attacker.

“And I’m focused on the rest of the trip, getting home and finishing what I started,” she said. “Quitting is not an option for me, because that’s not who I am.”

‘Stronger in the end’

The Chicago Sun-Times has a policy against naming the victims of sexual assault, but Gibbons said she wants her story to be told.

“The police gave me the option. They said, ‘You don’t have to say you were sexually assaulted,’ ” Gibbons said. “But I decided to be open and honest because it happened. And it does happen, and it’s hard to talk about. And I’ve only begun the healing process. I don’t know how I’ll feel in a week. I won’t go into detail about what happened to me, but I think it’s important to say it did happen.

Gibbons says she sees an unfortunate parallel between woman fighting breast cancer and what happened to her in the U.P.

“With both breast cancer and sexual assault you are dealing with issues that can come up about how you feel about your body, and the way other people view you, and it’s a very personal thing,” she said. “And the only way to deal with that is to talk about this and ask for support.”

After all, support is what Gibbons has tried to offer to breast cancer survivors since 2008 by sharing her love of rowing. She founded Recovery On Water — ROW for short — to help breast cancer survivors find support and get exercise by participating in her favorite sport. Gibbons rowed on the Michigan State University rowing team unit she graduated in 2005.

She coaches about 50 rowers who survived breast cancer. The team practices in either four- or eight-woman crews a few times a week on the once heavily polluted stretch of the Chicago River’s South Branch near Bridgeport better known as “Bubbly Creek.”

Gibbons hoped the money she raised by circumnavigating Lake Michigan would raise about $150,000 to buy more boats and push enrollment to 100 survivors. She has already raised $80,000.

Sadly, after July 22, the trip is not just about expanding her charity work.

“Yes, that was a hard day, but it was a really important day,” she said. “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.”

On a mission

A Chicago bicycle shop shipped a top-of-the-line road bike and other gear to Gibson to help her keep pushing forward. She plans to spend the next week biking to Muskegon, Mich. From there she will get back in the rowboat and head home.

“We’re going to get out of the desolate area and have someone with me every step of the way,” Gibbons said.

Her supporters — and strangers who came to cheer her on along the way — won’t be able to keep tabs of her exact whereabouts anymore, but Gibbons won’t forget the kind people she has met so far.

“It’s important that I remember all the wonderful people who hugged me and said they were inspired,” Gibbons said. “That’s such fuel for me, because this trip has been very hard. I’ve met 10 times more good people than bad people. I only met one bad person, and we haven’t really met.”

She hopes one day police will catch her attacker and she’ll get a proper introduction as he heads to prison.

But Gibbons can’t focus on that now.

She’s on a mission.

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