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Despite Assault, Jenn Gibbons to Circle Lake Again to Help Build Boathouse

By Mark Konkol | June 13, 2014 5:35am | Updated on June 16, 2014 5:16am
 Jenn Gibbons, executive director of Recovery on Water, survived wind, waves and a sexual assualt during her epic journey around Lake Michigan in 2012. Now, she plans to bicycle around the lake with 30 other cyclists to raise money for a Bridgeport boathouse.
Jenn Gibbons, executive director of Recovery on Water, survived wind, waves and a sexual assualt during her epic journey around Lake Michigan in 2012. Now, she plans to bicycle around the lake with 30 other cyclists to raise money for a Bridgeport boathouse.
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DNAinfo/ Mark Konkol

BRIDGEPORT — Maybe you remember Jenn Gibbons, the remarkable woman who quit her job at Groupon and set off to circumnavigate Lake Michigan in a rowboat to raise cash for charity.

In July 2012, she rowed through 25-knot winds and battled 6-foot swells on the trip. But that wasn't the worst part of the journey that became a defining moment in her life.

While docked overnight near a lighthouse in a remote location on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a stranger boarded the boat and sexually assaulted her.

Gibbons, 29, refused to let the attack stop her from completing the trip.

"I'm focused on the rest of the trip, getting home and finishing what I started," she told me two years ago. "Quitting is not an option for me, because that's not who I am."

Gibbons completed her epic voyage and by doing so raised more than $150,000 for Recovery on Water — ROW for short — the charity she founded to help breast cancer survivors get exercise and support through rowing.

Jenn Gibbons discusses her 2012 trip and how she has dealt with the assualt on DNAinfo Radio:

Nearly two years later, Gibbons plans to head around the lake again.

This time she'll make the 1,000-mile trip on her bicycle with about 30 other cyclists to raise money to help build a boathouse on Bubbly Creek in Bridgeport at 2850 S. Eleanor St.

Two boathouse buildings designed by acclaimed architecture firm Studio Gang will be used for boat storage, rowing classes and year round programs — maybe even yoga classes —for neighbors, Gibbons said.

ROW has teamed up with rowing crews from St. Ignatius College Prep, University of Chicago and the Chicago Training Center to raise $1 million.

"The boathouse isn't only for our rowing clubs. The idea is to make rowing, which is mostly an unavailable, expensive and elite sport, available to a community that's not familiar with it," she said. "This isn't just for a program that I care about, it's also about benefiting the community, and that's our strongest motivation."

The clock's ticking. The rowing groups have three years to reach their massive fundraising goal. And even though it seems unattainable, the Logan Square woman says there's no way she'll give up.

"I don't know how to raise $1 million," she said. "But I've got this tendency of setting off to accomplish a goal without knowing how to get there. But I didn't know everything about navigating open water when I set off to row Lake Michigan, either."

Gibbons says she wishes people remembered her as the "girl who rowed around Lake Michigan instead of the girl who was sexually assaulted," because the attack didn't define her journey. And it doesn't define her.

Months after Gibbons finished that trip, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, struggled with relationships and suffered from social anxiety.

Her way of coping — to keep pushing, keep moving forward in her boat and her life — would only get her so far.

She found strength by asking for help, even when that felt like the hardest thing to do.

So, as Gibbons sets out on a new journey around the lake, she's asking businesses, politicians and regular folks for their help to revive a stinky stretch of the Chicago River's South Branch into a blessing for folks who live there.

"I found that it's amazing who will help you when you ask. And for me that means going from a one-woman show rowing around the lake to having an army behind me," she said. "Believe me, it's really a great feeling."

Bike4Row riders are set to leave Chicago Aug. 10 on the 13-day, 1000-mile journey around Lake Michigan. For more information on joining the group — for one day, one week or the whole trip — or donating to the cause, visit Bike4Row.org.

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: