The Lookout

Interview with Jenn Gibbons, who finished 1,500-mile row for charity despite sexual assault

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(AP Photo/Mimi Weinreb)

On Tuesday, Jenn Gibbons finished her 1,500 mile row around the perimeter of Lake Michigan, despite being sexually assaulted earlier in her two-month-long journey. She undertook the long row to raise money for her non-profit, Recovery on Water (ROW), a rowing team made up of breast cancer survivors, which promotes exercise as a way of preventing a cancer recurrence. [Full disclosure: Jenn was a coach for my high school crew team, and I volunteered for ROW.]

On July 22, the 27-year-old said she was sleeping alone in her boat in an isolated area of the Lake, when a man crept on board and sexually assaulted her. After contacting the police, Gibbons received extra support to ensure her safety in remote areas and forged ahead with her trip, which helped raise $113,000 for her charity.

Yahoo News caught up with Gibbons on the phone about her social media presence, how she's coping with the assault and how silence can be painful.

You lived very openly through your blog, your Facebook profile, and your Twitter account. Some believe posting your whereabouts may have had something to do with your assault. Are you more wary of that kind of sharing, now?

Gibbons: Whether I was using social media or not, I would have met good and bad people. And the good experiences so outweigh the bad. The same day I was assaulted, a breast cancer survivor found me online and visited me to talk, because she was about to go back into treatment. I'm not afraid to share, and I still will.

After you were assaulted, did you change your social networking behavior?

Gibbons: Yeah, we removed information from the website about where I'd be. Not because I was afraid, but because the police thought it was a good idea.

Have you received any notable support?

Gibbons: A lot of survivors of breast cancer or sexual assault---or both, unfortunately---did contact me. People I knew but didn't know had been assaulted, and total strangers, contacted me. There are certain parallels between the experiences of survivors and victims.

I feel like I've been asked the same questions, and given the same answers, to reporters. This is something I haven't really talked about.

Right after it happened, I didn't do anything or call the police, not anybody, for half an hour. I thought that I'd be getting up in an hour anyway, and maybe I could just get up and row and continue and tell nobody. But that silence was so painful. Once I called the police, I immediately felt better. And once I began to receive all this support, I knew I'd made the right decision to talk. Because it's better that this be a part of me, and people know, than this be a part of me, and have nobody know.

In that vein, are you considering any sort of joint advocacy?

Gibbons: I feel like I need to figure out who to talk to about it myself first, and time to heal. But once I do, I do want to speak out since I have support and a voice. I've received support from people in my life who I didn't know were victims. By sharing, I hope to give them hope.

What really got me was when I saw my story on the front page of RedEye [a free Chicago daily]. I'd been on national news, and been covered by other media, but that's when it really hit me that everybody I knew would know this about me.

[SLIDESHOW: Jenn's journey]

Right---it's on the El [Chicago's elevated train], it's everywhere.

That's when it hit me.

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