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Friday, July 27, 2012
Rower Jenn Gibbons fighting to the end

By Sarah Spain

During the early-morning hours Sunday, Jenn Gibbons was sexually assaulted while her boat was moored along the shore of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, according to police. The 27-year-old former Michigan State rower was midway through a two-month, 1,500-mile row to raise money for breast cancer survivors.

By Wednesday morning, Gibbons was back on track, determined to finish what she'd started.

When Gibbons set out from her home in Chicago on June 15, she hoped to become the first person to solo-row the perimeter of Lake Michigan. Her goal was to raise $150,000 for the nonprofit organization she founded, Recovery on Water. Gibbons, who had done work with cancer survivors at Michigan State, founded ROW when she moved to Chicago after college. The charity helps raise awareness about the importance of exercise in the prevention of and recovery from cancer.

While the first month-plus of the grueling trip had already presented her with many unforeseen challenges, Sunday's attack was the ultimate test of Gibbons' strength and courage. Her 19-foot boat, Liv, was moored along a remote stretch of shoreline near the village of Gulliver, Mich., and she was sleeping in the cabin when a man broke in and assaulted her, according to police.

Despite the attack, after talking to friends and family, she decided to finish her trip on both bike and boat, accompanied by a support team and security.

To complete the trip, Gibbons' boat will be towed to Muskegon, in southwestern Michigan. She plans to ride her bike there over the next week and then row the final 115 miles to Chicago.

Before riding 80-plus miles in windy, rainy conditions Wednesday, she posed alongside her newly donated bike, holding a whiteboard sign that read, "Getting back to it. I got this. Go ROW."

"I've only been on the road for a couple hours, but I can tell you it feels like the right thing to do," Gibbons said in between marathon cycling sessions on Wednesday afternoon. "While this isn't what I planned on, we'll turn it into something that will make the trip even bigger and better."

Since the news of her attack broke, she's received hundreds of calls and messages of support, and her site, row4row.org, has taken in thousands of dollars in donations. She passed the $100,000 mark on Thursday.

"This isn't the way that I wanted to do it," she said. "But I'm glad people are paying attention and learning about it and that we're making the impact we set out to."

Before resuming her trip on the bike, Gibbons retrieved a few things from her boat. She got choked up as she talked about getting back on board for the first time.

"When the police take fingerprints, they have to put this black dusty stuff all over everything. It was all over my boat, on the inside and the outside of my boat. It was just a big reminder of exactly what happened. It was hard."

The attack

Gibbons said she heard someone come onto her boat in the early morning hours on Sunday. After the man broke into the cabin, he called her by name as he sexually assaulted her, she said.

"He told me he knew where to find me," Gibbons recalled. Investigators said they believe the man had been following her progress on her charity's website and that he'd "traveled a significant distance to commit the assault."

After the assault, Gibbons punched her attacker in the chest and escaped off the boat to a nearby outhouse. He caught up with her but she managed to fight him off just long enough to lock the door and call 911. Her assailant then fled the scene in a yellow Jeep Wrangler with a yellow smiley-face tire cover on the back, she said.

"Physical force caused him to run away," Gibbons said. "I don't think he anticipated me being as interested in fighting him off as I was."

Police have since released a sketch of the attacker, who is a white man in his 30s, between 5-foot-8 and 6-foot-0 with light eyes, an average-to-athletic build, and facial stubble but no mustache or beard.

"I feel confident in the sketch," Gibbons said. "What we really need now is for people to learn about this, to see the sketch, to help us identify him, and hopefully that'll help us find him."

Her location and progress will no longer be displayed on ROW's website, though she hopes to find other ways to connect with survivors and supporters along the way.

"We've realized that that's been a really important part of this trip, being able to engage and interact with people," she said. "We wanna keep me safe and still do that at the same time."

Usually, the names of sexual-assault victims are withheld, but Gibbons insisted on coming forward immediately. She wanted to help authorities catch her attacker and hoped to inspire others who have lived through similar ordeals to do the same.

"To go through this at all, let alone publicly, is extremely difficult," she wrote on her Facebook wall. "I chose to talk about it in the hope that someone might be able to provide more information about the person who did this to me."

Open book

From the beginning, Gibbons set out to share her journey with the public in the hopes that her photos and thoughtful, honest posts would result in donations and more attention for her cause. On good days she can be seen flexing her guns and boasting about 25 miles of rowing; on the bad ones, she has admitted to tearful breakdowns and doubts about finishing.

One week into the trip, Gibbons learned that her grandmother had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer; less than three weeks later, she put her rowing on pause to attend the funeral. Once back in the boat, she's had to contend with 6-foot waves, gusting winds and storms that have led to desperate calls to the Coast Guard for help.

When she felt like she couldn't hack it, she'd call her website manager and ROW team member, Brenda Janish, for support. It was Janish who helped her decide to finish the trip, even after Sunday's unthinkable events.

"There've been other moments on the trip where I felt like I couldn't do it," Gibbons said. "So this wasn't the first one. [Brenda] knows how to motivate me, who I am and what my inclinations are. She was supportive of whatever my decision was going to be, but I think she knew what it was."

Those who know Gibbons and have followed her story might have expected her to find the strength and determination to get past the assault and continue on with her journey.

And on Tuesday she did exactly that, letting everyone know she would keep fighting with an inspiring message on her Facebook wall that included this thought:

"I still believe that there are more good people in the world than bad. I still believe that life is a gift, even when it's scary and unfair. I still believe that life offers us the privilege, the opportunity, and the responsibility, to give something back, even when people try to take things away from us."

Throughout her journey, Gibbons has always focused on the positive -- even on those days when wind and rain kept her from making any progress. She'd snap a photo showing her gap-toothed grin, admit that "cancer ass-kicking" isn't easy, and assure those following along: "I got this."

The support she's received from loved ones and strangers alike has helped remind her why she decided to do this in the first place. No matter what's ahead, she knows she'll be strong enough to get through it.

"The trip is not what I anticipated it to be," she admitted. "But I can focus on the terrible things that have happened or I can focus on all the wonderful people I've met. All the survivors who have come forward and wanted to meet me and shake my hand and hug me. Tell me, 'Thank you,' tell me that I'm an inspiration. To keep going, to keep rowing, to keep moving. And if I focus on those things, I really don't know that there's anything that can stop me."