CHICAGO – Jenn Gibbons wanted to control her emotions when she rowed into Chicago, determined to complete her 1,500-mile trip around Lake Michigan despite being sexually assaulted aboard her boat in Michigan's Upper Peninsula nearly a month ago.
But when she saw her supporters waving and cheering from the shore Tuesday, including the cancer survivors for whom she was rowing, the toughness that pulled her through the waves and the emotions began to melt.
"I was smiling, then I was happy, then I started crying when I saw the team," she said, referring to Recovery on Water, or ROW, the rowing team she co-founded for breast cancer survivors that promotes exercise to reduce the chance of reoccurrence.
Dozens of supporters greeted the 27-year-old as she rowed into the harbor at the Chicago Yacht Club, blue skies and light winds welcoming her home. When asked about the assault, she said she felt no lingering bitterness and had full confidence in investigators looking for her attacker.
"I still believe that there are a lot more good people in the world than bad," she said, adding that she has been overwhelmed by the support she has received, including being given a Chicago flag by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The mayor wrote on the flag, "You've got this," in honor of Gibbons' voyage motto.
The trip helped raise $113,000, which ROW volunteers said they hoped would help them raise awareness about the group and purchase more boats. The group includes 50 women ranging in age from their 30s to their 70s.
Gibbons came forward about her assault shortly after it happened on July 22, in part, she said, to help police find her attacker. She said she was sleeping alone in her boat on an isolated stretch of the Upper Peninsula when she was surprised and sexually assaulted by a man who had crept on board. Michigan State Police are still looking for the man, whom they suspect may have tracked her movements through her blog.
After the assault, alternate plans were made to ensure her safety in Michigan's more remote areas. Gibbons and a small group of supporters rode bicycles together for about 350 miles to Muskegon, Mich., where she was reunited with her boat for the remainder of the journey.
Gibbons acknowledged that she has a lot of healing ahead of her and said she hasn't fully come to terms with the prospect of becoming a spokeswoman for victims of sexual assault. She's considering writing a book to help in the process, noting the piles of notes she took during her trip.
"I've been an advocate for exercise and breast cancer for years, I feel very comfortable being that person. This is talking about something I don't necessarily know how to talk about yet," she said.
"It's really hard to share all of the really good things and all of the really bad things that happened because you open yourself up, and you are extremely vulnerable to what people are going to think about you," she added. "I have a lot of healing to do, a lot of things I need to dig into."