ESCANABA - One woman. One Great Lake. One great cause. This is what defines the journey of 27-year-old rower Jenn Gibbons, who traveled around the perimeter of Lake Michigan this past summer to raise funds and awareness for a recovery rowing organization of breast cancer survivors.
Gibbons spoke Wednesday evening at Bay College's Besse Theatre as part of the Campus Activities Board Series. Gibbons, who grew up in Battle Creek, attended Michigan State University, where she became involved in the rowing team. While there, she volunteered with breast cancer survivors, learning the relationship between breast cancer and the importance of exercise.
Gibbons later moved to Chicago, where she began working for a corporate company and decided to become a rowing coach on the side. She soon began looking for a way to reach out and connect breast cancer survivors to the sport of rowing. According to Gibbons, there are more than 3 million breast cancer survivors in the United States and exercise reduces cancer recurrence in breast cancer survivors by 50 percent.
"I wanted to find ways to make the sport available to survivors because of the link between exercise and breast cancer," she said. "So I started a program, and we came up with this name called Recovery on Water, or ROW for short."
ROW provides "a unique, fun, and warm environment for survivors to get fit and fight cancer through exercise," according to the ROW website.
The program started more than five years ago with only four or five women who wanted to learn how to row. The program has since expanded to 50 women. Members of ROW practice year-round, rowing four days a week and getting between 30 to 40 minutes of cardio a day.
Since Gibbons had been pushing these women to challenge themselves physically and use exercise as a tool in their lives, she knew she wanted to do something in return. She wanted to be a part of a physical challenge to bring awareness of the link between exercise and reducing the recurrence of breast cancer, also hoping to gain inspiration and raise money for the organization.
Gibbons ultimately purchased a long-distance rowing boat she named Liv, Norwegian for the word "life," to row around the perimeter of Lake Michigan. She consulted those who knew how to go about this journey, as she wasn't sure where to begin.
"When I decided to do this, I had no idea what I was doing," said Gibbons. "All I ever rode in was flat water. I'd never been in open water. I'd never been seasick. I really didn't know what physical training it would take. I really didn't know how to get sponsors."
After researching, training, and preparing for the journey, she finally left Chicago in mid-June, rowing northward to Wisconsin. Her goal was to raise $150,000 throughout the journey, and people donated money along the way and could follow her online, as she blogged about her experiences.
Gibbons recalls several ups and downs along her trip, feeling excited and happy some days and depressed during others. Her first five days on the water, she was seasick and couldn't eat anything. Oftentimes she felt uncomfortable in the summer heat.
Gibbons made good progress the first half of the trip, but eventually faced some challenges. She first ran into a storm, which caused her anchor to tear out of the bow of her boat. She eventually had to call the Coast Guard for help as the storm worsened.
"I can remember thinking that I was such a failure because I needed help," recalled Gibbons. "I think that was one of the first setbacks that I really told myself that I didn't know if I could, and I didn't know if I wanted, to finish."
More than three weeks into her trip, Gibbons learned that her grandmother had died from cancer, which she said was a turning point for her journey to keep going. She attributes this to her rowers and breast cancer survivors who sent their support and encouragement.
Soon after, Gibbons reached the Manistique area. She was stuck at port for a couple days, and during this time, was sexually assaulted on her boat.
Thinking back to that night, Gibbons had to make a tough decision.
"So many people think that the inspiring part of my story was that I kept rowing, but I want you to understand that the hardest decision that I made was to tell someone that I was actually assaulted," she said. Gibbons sat in her boat and waited for an hour to call police.
"I kept thinking, 'I can just keep rowing and no one has to know this happened to me, and it must be my fault because this happened and I should have been able to control it. I should have been able to change it, and I couldn't,'" she said. She finally called the police because she felt it was the right thing to do.
Before her assault story made news, Gibbons called a friend in Chicago who owned a bike shop and asked to be sent a bike to continue her journey on land. Her first day on bike, she traveled from Seul Choix Point to the Mackinac Bridge - roughly 87 miles. It rained that entire day, but she was just elated she could continue her journey.
"Six hundred miles later, I had friends come up from Chicago ... and they biked with me," she said. "I had people in my life that I hadn't seen in years that came out to bike with me. I had complete and total strangers come out and bike with me."
Michigan State Police followed her along the way, which made her feel safe, supported and protected. Every time she felt like quitting, she looked at the people biking with her and knew she wasn't going to stop.
With the news of her assault, many reached out to Gibbons, sharing their stories of surviving breast cancer or of sexual assault, including some people in her life she never knew were victims.
Gibbons shared one of the emails she received from a mother whose daughter was bullied - one that has stuck with her.
"She shared that her daughter was being bullied at school, that her daughter read my story and said to her mom, 'Mom, this woman ... was bullied in the most extreme way and she's not letting it stop her. She's continuing,'" said Gibbons. "I can't tell you how much that meant to me in terms of motivation but also now, still learning about stories that are continuing to come to me."
Once Gibbons reached Muskegon by bicycle, she got back in her boat and made her way to Chicago, reaching the city by mid-August, where she was greeted by hundreds of people. At that point she raised just more than $100,000.
"The thing I always want to make sure, particularly with students and really to anybody, is what you have to give the world is needed and it is enough," concluded Gibbons. Five years ago when she started ROW, she never knew it would be able to change lives like it has, but said it was enough and a substantial thing to give to the world.
To date, Gibbons has raised roughly $125,000 of her $150,000 goal. Gibbons was presented a $900 check on behalf of Bay College following her presentation.
For more information on Gibbons and her journey, visit www.row4row.org.