Chicago rowing coach and charity founder Jenn Gibbons plans to continue her 1,500-mile rowing journey around the perimeter of Lake Michigan after surviving a sexual assault that took place in her rowboat on Sunday.
“Quitting is an option,” said Gibbons, who is rowing to raise awareness and money for breast cancer survivors. “I don’t think people would think I let them down or I was a failure. But it’s not what I want to do."
Gibbons, 27, was in the cabin of Liv, her 700-pound rowboat, while it was tied to a dock around 4 a.m. Sunday in an area along Lake Michigan in Schoolcraft County, Mich. Specific details of the attack are being withheld due to the ongoing investigation.
Around 8 a.m. Tuesday, Gibbons posted a statement about the assault on her Facebook page and on the site row4row.org. By the afternoon, she had 60 missed phone calls and had received hundreds of emails. Support has come from a wide range of people: friends, strangers, breast cancer survivors and victims of sexual assaults.
“Because this has been such a public thing from the start and I have an audience, I think it’s important that I share (what happened),” she said. “When I do share, people have been able to relate and gain some kind of strength or inspiration from what I’ve been going through. And it helps me share, too.”
She also hopes it will help police find her attacker. Police are still investigating the incident and searching for a white man they describe as in his 30s, about 5’8’’ with facial hair, light eyes and an average build. He was wearing a grayish green T-shirt, jean shorts and tennis shoes. A news release from Michigan police says a bright yellow Jeep Wrangler was seen in the area of the attack. It has a spare tire on the back with a yellow happy-face on it. Powell said the vehicle may have had Illinois license plates.
Gibbons expects to continue her journey around the lake later this week, riding 80 miles a day on a bicycle with a support crew. She plans to get back on the water near Muskegon, Mich. sometime next week. There will be some changes made to ensure her safety, she said, including that she will no longer be traveling alone. Her trip is expected to end when she gets back to Chicago in mid-August, as was originally planned.
Recently named one of 20 inspiring women by Today’s Chicago Woman magazine, Gibbons has been rowing 10 to 13 miles a day since she left from Diversey Harbor in her bright yellow vessel on June 15. Her plan was to stop only to visit 10 port towns along the lake to raise funds for her charity – the team’s boats cost approximately $25,000 each -- and highlight the vital role exercise plays in the fight against breast cancer.
Before she left, she packed 210 dehydrated meals and hundreds of Luna bars into Liv. She sleeps buckled up inside the 19-foot boat, which has two air- and watertight cabins and a ventilator for fresh air. So far, Gibbons has raised $80,000, more than halfway to her goal of $150,000.
Gibbons, who grew up in Battle Creek Michigan and rowed for Michigan State University, never expected the trip to be easy.
The wind “which will not let me get from A to B” has been especially vexing, she said. “I’m dependent on the weather and it changes every day.”
On the ocean, trade winds always push you in the right direction, Gibbons said. “On the lake, the wind changes from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. By 3 p.m., it’s doing something different.”
But the last several weeks have been particularly tough. Setbacks ranged from six foot waves that had her throwing up on Liv's ceiling and a busted GPS system to a problematic anchor and the death of a grandmother on July 13.
“I want progress- but today can't be that day,” she wrote on July 18, after being grounded by wind gusts. “Practicing acceptance and remembering to believe in myself. I can and will do this. I can and will do this.”
After her grandmother’s death, Gibbons’ father drove nonstop through the night to get her to and from the funeral service in Battle Creek. “The adventure will continue. Liv and I are not giving up,” she posted. “We still have a lot of cancer ass-kicking to do this summer. But for now I must take a moment to mourn a life that cancer took away. I'm trying to make choices that leave me with the fewest regrets. It isn't easy.”
Near Gulliver, Mich, the night before the assault, Gibbons posted on Facebook that she barely slept because 20 mile per hour winds were rocking the boat. “Kept waking up every half hour or so,” she wrote. “Feeling restless and just wish I could sleep. She noted it was a “rainy, windy day.” Tomorrow I will tackle the trek to Beaver Island as it looks like a good wind day.”
Still, Gibbons has also written about plenty of joyful, inspiring moments. On June 27, she woke up at 5 a.m. to find a kayaking cancer survivor next to her boat. He paddled with her for a few miles, sharing his cancer experience and how it led him to meet his wife. He told her how, as a near-Olympic marathoner in his 30's, he started a program to get survivors exercising in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
It’s the same goal Gibbons is pursuing.
“Thank you Tim for spending your morning with me and sharing your story with me,” she wrote. “You are amazing-an inspiration-a gift. GO ROW.”
Anyone with information on the attack should call Michigan State Police at 1-866-411-0018.