Rowing to Recovery: Assault victim Jenn Gibbons shares story - FOX 10 News |

Rowing to Recovery: Assault victim Jenn Gibbons shares story

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Jenn Gibbons embarked on a two month trip around the perimeter of Lake Michigan to raise money for the non-profit organization she founded for breast cancer survivors called Recovery on Water, or ROW.

Every day for ten hours a day, she rowed alone in her boat named Liv and blogged about her experiences along the way.

"I had been living in the boat and basically continuing my journey," Gibbons says. "I was dealing with waves. I was dealing with sea sickness. Multiple times, I thought I was gonna die."

Her mission was mighty and her example was clear to the cancer survivors she coaches. Rowing, she says, is the exercise they need to recover to reduce recurrence and survive.

Then, something happened that would shift the course of her life forever. On July 22, Jenn docked to get some sleep. In the middle of the night as she was sleeping, a stranger crept on her boat. Police believe he had tracked her movements through her blog.

"It was about a month into my journey. I was in the upper peninsula of Michigan and I was sexually assaulted," Gibbons explains. "It happened in the middle of the night. It was one of those things that I feel like certainly I could have never prepared for."

She broke free from his grasp and ran from her boat, but the man followed. She says she ran into an outhouse, locked herself in the stall and waited, returning to her boat once she thought he was gone.

"I was inside of the boat for at least a half an hour before dialing 911," she recalls. "The hardest decision was the first one. To call someone and tell them what happened to me. "

Police found Jenn in a state of shock and rushed her to a nearby hospital.

"I sat down and I can very distinctly remember the doctor saying to me: 'I know this is going to be hard, but I need you to explain to me what happened' and that's when I just... lost it," she continues.

Police docked her boat to investigate. She worked to pull it together and eventually went back to where it all started—on her blog—to tell the world what happened. It's a decision that got her both compliments and criticism.

"I definitely didn't understand what a big deal it was going to be to talk about it, until I did," she says.

A wave of support came pouring in with calls, emails and resources from around the country.

And with her boat docked with police, she took to a bike and rode on.

One week later, her boat Liv was returned. Jenn found the courage to get back in that boat and finished her mission one month later.

"There was a lot of fingerprint chalk," she remembers. " It was really hard to get back in the boat. It was hard to get back to Chicago. Like many of the women I work with, you take the experience to find your way of recovering. When I think back on the experience, I still try and understand why everything happened."

But, it's the finish that fuels her. Like the women she coaches, she is still recovering. It has been a long journey with the challenges as high as the waves at times, but she takes it day by day, row for row, and rows on.

"Being able to separate what happened to me and who I am has been a really big part of my recovery." For me and for these women, the way to move forward is to recover today. Is to reach out when you need help with something and be willing to be vulnerable in front of people who have been through exactly what you've been through."

Gibbons raised $150,000 for ROW, the group she now heads as executive director and head coach. She also just received her rape kit back, which tested positive for a man's DNA. So far though, there has been no arrest.


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