A young woman in a bright yellow, single-occupant rowboat scooted into the Chicago Yacht Club and docked her boat. Waiting for her were a throng of supporters as well as a pack of reporters. News cameras were aimed squarely on her as she walked to her loved ones for an emotional embrace.
The date was Aug. 14, 2012. Jenn Gibbons was finally home.
The rower and rowing coach spent the summer of 2012 on a fundraising trip for Recovery On Water, a group Gibbons founded that trains breast cancer survivors to become rowers. The trek took Gibbons along the perimeter of Lake Michigan, a journey she documented online as it happened.
The Ukrainian Village resident says the decision to share her progress led to a man breaking onto her boat July 24, 2012, and attempting to sexually assault her. She was able to escape, and after giving her boat to Michigan State Police, who opened an investigation, she continued her journey on bike. Gibbons returned to her boat the first week of August and still finished by her intended end date.
Gibbons, now 28, dealt with her assault by focusing on finishing her trip, but still ended up afflicted by stress and trauma.
"A lot of people have asked me if I'm hesitant of sharing things since last summer," she said in an exclusive interview with RedEye, "and I think that once I got on that bike and restarted the trip, I was a little nervous. I can remember, like right after the assault, I didn't even want to go into the grocery store. I didn't want people to see me or talk to me or know where I was. I remember just trying to go into the grocery store and crying about it, you know?"
Despite her best efforts, the stress came flooding back in May, when she and her boyfriend went on a biking trip from Memphis to New Orleans.
"It had been almost a year since I left for my trip," she said, "and I've been doing really fine. But then we were camping one night, and the tent was down by the water, and it was the exact location of road to water, or traffic to water, that I was when I was assaulted.
"There was a car that drove by, and the light sort of came into the tent the same way that the lights came into my boat. And I just freaked out. I remember it really shocking me that I was having that reaction. And Andy, my boyfriend, was like, 'What's wrong? The car went away. We're OK.' It wasn't that I felt like I was going to be attacked. It was the memory—having the same memory happen again."
In the year that followed, the trip brought speaking engagements and job offers. It also brought exposure and donations to ROW, giving Gibbons the opportunity to work for ROW full time. She serves as executive director and is involved in the group's programming, development and day-to-day business operations.
Along with her work at ROW, Gibbons is now coaching row at the Chicago Rowing Union and advocating for new boathouses in Chicago. One on the North Side, called Clark Park, is close to opening at Rockwell Street south of Addison Street. As summer winds down, Gibbons has two goals: the launch of a South Side boating facility, and her next adventure, slated for summer 2014.
"It's exciting," Gibbons said of the South Side porject. "I think we can do a lot with it. And not just for ROW, but for that community and the sport in the city."
Gibbons has no interest in taking another solo trip. Instead, in 2014 she will spend two weeks biking around Lake Michigan with a group of cancer survivors from ROW.
"The trip around the lake via bicycle with survivors was meant to accomplish our mission," Gibbons said. "It was meant to get survivors exercising as well as building awareness [for ROW]. It's fun for me mostly because it's not about me. It's about these women who have these stories."
Following the sexual assault episode, Gibbons began to see a therapist regularly, a practice she discontinued after feeling emotionally recovered. The effects weren't merely in the trauma of being attacked, but also in her frustration with those who accused her of faking the attack to drum up publicity.
Part of the skepticism stems from the ambiguity of the term "sexual assault," as well as the legal restrictions on what Gibbons is allowed to say about the details of the incident in case it ever sees court.
"When my story came out, there were certain things, and there still are certain things, that I can't talk about," she said. "So for me it was really frustrating because when you put out ambiguous or vague information about a sexual assault, people immediately jump to the word 'rape.' Which is extremely frustrating because there's such a connotation with that word. 'Sexual assault' and 'rape.' You'd think that they would be kind of the same thing. But it's not."
Still, just as Gibbons used the remaining weeks of her 2012 trip to help her refocus, she is now using her work to move in a positive direction.
And she has no regrets.
"If I could go back and do it, I'd do it all over again," she said. "Knowing whatever was going to happen, I'd definitely go back and do it all over again. I wouldn't plan another trip if I didn't think that it was worth it. And I know that it's going to be a lot of sacrifice. I know what I'm getting myself into again."
She flashed a warm, toothy smile. "But it's worth it."
Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. @readjack
WHAT HAPPENED TO LIV?
Liv, the boat Gibbons used in her 2013 journey around Lake Michigan, has a new home. The 19-foot vessel, complete with sleepign cabin, was sold in February for $35,000 to a buyer on oceanrowing.com.
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