On Sunday morning, athlete and coach Jenn Gibbons was sexually assaulted on the shore of Lake Michigan when she was getting ready for day of rowing. Gibbons wasn’t just any rower; she was completing a solo circumnavigation of Lake Michigan, all 1,500 miles of it, to raise money for Recovery on Water, the organization she founded to get breast cancer survivors out in the water and back in control of their bodies.
In the midst of coordinating with her support team, reporting the crime, and getting to safety, Jenn was faced with two tough choices. The first was whether to continue rowing, and the second was whether to come out about the attack. Thanks to the fact that she was regularly updating her blog, she had limited time in which to make a decision before people would start wondering what was going on.
Ultimately, she decided that her answer to both of the choices she was faced with should be “yes,” which was tremendously courageous of her. Jenn will be completing part of the journey by bicycle with a support team to make sure she’s safe, and she’ll be returning to the water when she reaches more populated areas of Lake Michigan where it will be feasible to surround her with a support crew.
Adjusting her plans to allow herself to continue the trip while remaining safe means she can get back in the water, and return the focus to the women she’s raising funds for, the breast cancer survivors who say she’s made a tremendous difference in their lives.
Returning to the scene of trauma is emotionally intense, and difficult to navigate. When your entire world has been turned upside-down and your sense of safety has been utterly shifted, it’s difficult to return to routine, especially when your routine is a bold adventure. Coming out about that trauma is also extraordinarily difficult; women who talk about sexual assault do so with the knowledge that some people will judge them, that people’s perceptions of them will change after the attack.
Reading Jenn’s blog, I’m struck both by her love of the water, and the way she talks about the healing capacity of the water. Not just for the women she coaches, who find freedom and strength from rowing and working with other breast cancer survivors in an environment that isn’t All About Breast Cancer, but for herself, as well.
She’s already had major setbacks on her trip, including the need for a tow from the Coast Guard and the death of her beloved grandmother from pancreatic cancer. By the time her grandmother was diagnosed, she was already rowing, and she kept going with the knowledge that her grandmother wouldn’t survive to see her at the end of the trip. Writing about her conflicted emotions and sorrow at losing her grandmother, Jenn said:
I remember one morning last week – I had perfect conditions, plenty to be happy about – but I just sobbed as I rowed. I cried until I had no tears. In the sun and in the silence…with no one for miles to hear or see me I just let everything out. I talked to her and thanked her for everything she taught me-and the memories she’s given my family.
When her grandmother passed, she decided to attend the funeral even though initially she hadn’t planned on doing so because it would disrupt her schedule. When it came time to keep going, though, Jenn realized that things had changed, and she took a break for the funeral because she needed to spend time with her family and honor her grandmother. Sometimes, moving on without skipping a beat isn’t the answer, and sometimes, you have to adjust your plans to deal with what happens along your journey.
What’s especially chilling about Jenn’s situation is that her attacker traveled, possibly over a considerable distance, to find her. Police and her team think he was probably tracking her via her blog, and used it to find an opportune moment to sexually assault her. Which implies a high degree of preparation and forethought.
Some people will use Jenn’s attack as an argument that women shouldn’t travel alone, in an era when more and more women are traveling alone. And when women are accomplishing feats like solo rows, sails, rides and other adventures, breaking records along the way. Those people are wrong, and Jenn’s proving them wrong as she prepares to continue her journey.
She's been proving them wrong as she travels; many kind strangers have helped her and Liv along their way and she's met amazing and wonderful people on her trip. Sexual assault is a danger for all women, not just those traveling alone.
Jenn herself says:
I still believe that life is a gift, even when it’s scary and unfair. I still believe that life offers us the privilege, the opportunity, and the responsibility, to give something back, even when people try to take things away from us.
Jenn dedicates her life and work to survivors of breast cancer, and she’s empowered so many women with Recovery on Water. This week, she became a member of another survivor’s club. I’m sorry you had to join us, Jenn, and I’m glad you know that you are not alone. We’ve got your back, and we’re going to help you through this.
Jenn’s team has details about the attack that they’re circulating, and they’re requesting any information that could lead to the identification and apprehension of her assailant:
Jenn was set to row to Beaver Island on Sunday morning but was attacked and sexually assaulted by a man in the early morning hours. The attack occurred in an area south of Gulliver along Lake Michigan in Mueller Township, Schoolcraft County, Mich. Investigators have reason to believe the assailant traveled a significant distance to commit the assault. The suspect is described as a white male in his 30s, approximately 5’8” to 6’ tall, with a fair amount of facial stubble hair, but not a full beard nor mustache. The man has light eyes, an average to athletic build and shorter well-kept hair. He was wearing a grayish green t-shirt, jean shorts and tennis shoes. A bright yellow Jeep Wrangler was seen in the area. It has a spare tire on the back with a yellow smiley face on it. Investigators are seeking information about this vehicle. Anyone with information or investigative leads please call the Michigan State Police toll-free at 1-866-411-0018.