Updated 7/24/12 – 9:27 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — A Chicago woman on a mission to row around Lake Michigan says she won’t be deterred by a sexual attack on her over the weekend in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
As WBBM Newsradio’s Regine Schlesinger reports, Jenn Gibbons, 27, was trying to row the entire 1,500-mile perimeter of Lake Michigan to raise $150,000 for Recovery on Water, a charity rowing team she founded to help cancer patients in their recovery.
“Exercise is a huge tool for survivors, and our program allows women to exercise and be a part of a team,” Gibbons said when she began her journey on June 15, to raise money for Recovery On Water, the nonprofit rowing team she founded for breast cancer survivors. She’s also the coach of the team.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Regine Schlesinger reports
Gibbons departed from Chicago, and was set to row around the shores of Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana in her vessel, “Liv.” She planned to row 30 miles a day, and stop by port towns along the lake to emphasize the role that exercise plays in fighting breast cancer.
One of her teammates, Bonnie Cortez, said Tuesday that other members of Recovery on Water were excited about her trip, but worried about her decision to go alone.
“But she’s a fighter, you know, so we felt good about her doing this journey,” Cortez said Tuesday.
Unfortunately, those fears about Gibbons making the trip alone turned into a real-life horror for Gibbons on Sunday, when she was sexually assaulted.
After making her way up the west coast of Lake Michigan over the past five weeks, Jenn stopped in the Upper Peninsula this weekend before making her way to Beaver Island on Sunday.
Early Sunday morning, a man broke into the cabin of her 700-pound row boat as it was tied to a dock in Schoolcraft County, Mich.
“In the morning hours Sunday, I was attacked and sexually assaulted, and fortunately I was able to get myself out of the situation and call the police, and get to safety,” Gibbons said in a phone interview with CBS 2’s Marissa Bailey. “There was an outhouse on the premises, and so I was able to get to the premises, or get to the outhouse, and go in there, and lock myself in there.”
Her attacker got away, but she was able to provide police with a detailed description, as well as a description of the Jeep that Gibbons saw near the area that night.
He is described as white and in his 30s, about 5 feet 8 inches to 6 feet tall, with a fair amount of facial stubble but not a full beard or mustache.
He has light eyes, an average to athletic build, and shorter, well-kept hair.
The man was last seen wearing a grayish-green T-shirt, jean shorts, and tennis shoes. A bright yellow Jeep Wrangler was seen in the area, with a spare tire mounted on the back with a smiley face on the cover.
It is believed that Gibbons’ attacker might have been following her blog and tracked her to Michigan.
Gibbons is now back home with her family, while Michigan State Police search for the man who attacked her. She said she wanted to tell her story in order to find the attacker and, hopefully, inspire other victims.
“I just felt like it was important, because I feel that this is an opportunity,” she said. “You know, I have an audience, and this really awful thing happened to me, but I think that we just have to keep going, and allow myself to heal from it, let all the emotions come out, but also understand that this is an opportunity to keep going, and that I’m not going to stop this trip, and I won’t be a victim of this.”
She also left a statement on her blog, in which she began by quoting poet Maya Angelou: “I can be changed by what happens to me. But, I refuse to be reduced by it.”
She said she knew she had a choice about whether to share details of her attack, but thought doing so was the right move. Thus, while CBS Chicago policy is not to publish the names of sexual assault victims, Gibbons has asked that her name be used and her story told.
“To go through this at all, let alone publicly, is extremely difficult,” Gibbons wrote. “I chose to talk about it in the hope that someone might be able to provide more information about the person who did this to me.”
The statement on her blog also said in part:
“I still believe that there are more good people in the world than bad.
“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.
Regarding the trip, one thing hasn’t changed: I’ve still got this. But the trip plan will change in a few ways to ensure my safety.
Most importantly, I will no longer be alone.”
Gibbons said she planned to haul her watercraft by trailer to a secure location in Muskegon, Mich., until she could resume the rowing trip around the lake.
She plans to ride 80 miles a day on a bicycle with a support crew to get to Muskegon, then resume her rowing trip sometime next week. She won’t be alone when she resumes her rowing trip, either. She expects to finish the trip in mid-August.
“My chin is up, my eyes are open, and we’re going to get this show back on the road (then water),” Gibbons wrote.
Anyone with information is asked to call Michigan State Police at (866) 411-0018.
Michigan State Police have said they’ve already received several tips, after releasing pictures of the Jeep.