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Feature Thu Apr 29 2010

Rowing to Recovery


Jenn Gibbons is a very difficult person to say "no" to. I learned this lesson firsthand one night a few months ago when a mutual friend introduced us. The first problem with saying no to Gibbons is this: she likes to talk. A frenetic energy bubbles beneath her skin and it erupts in rapid-fire bursts of exclamations from her constantly smiling mouth.

Aside from the comically obvious tactic of not being able to get "no" — or any word, for that matter — in edgewise with the constantly chatting and charming Gibbons, the words she produces so prodigiously are energizing and interesting unto themselves. In the course of a 10 minute exchange (wherein I did the listening and Jenn, well, she did the talking) I learned that she'd just returned from running a marathon in California, that she had to coach rowing practice in the morning, and that I had to come down and witness the amazing women she's coaching. Before I can get that magic two-letter word out (let alone a believable excuse) Gibbons is off discussing her other passion in life: kicking the crap out of cancer, one rower at a time.

And that's the second problem with telling Jenn Gibbons "no" or "nyet" or "nein": the tale she has to tell is so compelling and important to her that you can't help but listen and nod "yes."

Jenn Gibbons is a zealot for the obscure world of rowing and more importantly, she's a rowing coach for a very unique group of women. Gibbons coaches breast cancer survivors three times a week, indoors and outdoors, rain or shine, winter, spring, summer, fall. Jenn Gibbons is teaching, encouraging and coaxing these women into rebuilding their lives.

However, when Gibbons moved to Chicago after a successful rowing career at Michigan State she wasn't even sure if she wanted to coach rowing, let alone form a not-for-profit rowing organization for breast cancer survivors. Her coaching career started, almost by accident, at Chicago's St. Ignatius High School. "I went to an informational meeting for St. Ignatius with the intention of just seeing what the team was like and, at the same meeting, I was introduced as the novice coach for the boys team," Gibbons remarked. She started coaching novice boys shortly thereafter and in early 2008, Recovery On Water (ROW) was started when four eager but decidedly "novice" women, all survivors of breast cancer, approached Jenn and said "We want to row." This time, Jenn Gibbons couldn't say no.

The Sport of Rowing

Rowing, along with cross-country, swimming and cycling, is a brutally aerobic sport built around the presupposition that through endurance one will outlast one's opponent. Though not physically demanding in the "SMACK!" "KILL!" "CRUNCH" sense of football, rowing is an intense, pain-inducing exercise in self-mutilation. An all-body workout in the truest sense, a typical rowing race will rapidly fill a human body with that painful byproduct of working out: "lactic acid." Rowing physically assaults the cardiovascular system while it simultaneously messes with the human psyche. You stop rowing and the pain goes away, it's that simple, the sport says to a person mid-race.

Jenn Gibbons, in her quest to "kick cancer's butt, one rower at a time," has seemingly found a gold mine of self-selecting and capable athletes. The rowers of ROW have already suffered through the painful and draining ordeal of cancer therapy; for them rowing is, if not easy part, the vastly less difficult part. For these women, quitting anything, saying no, isn't an option they are willing to consider.

The Rowers

Alice Singleton, a Chicago-based writer and rower with ROW, had never touched an oar but when presented with the opportunity to join, she jumped at it. Originally intending to cover the group after a listserv request she saw, Singleton (three years of breast cancer survival and counting) asked if she could join instead of report on the organization. "Recovery On Water has made me release the shame and 'rudderless-ness' I've felt in my treatment and recovery process," Singleton explained in an email.

Her answer isn't uncommon. For many of these women, Recovery On Water is about rediscovering an identity and notion of self-worth that have been lost in their very personal battles with cancer. They know the nauseating sensations caused from chemotherapy and the neutering humiliation of hair loss from the radiation treatments. ROW is so much more than winning races or "getting in shape;" it's about finding a community of understanding people with whom, through their own on-water and in-hospital struggles, these women can relate. For Sandi Wisenberg, author of The Adventures of Cancer Bitch, the group has allowed her to realize that "cancer survivor" does not mean weak or victimized. "I've seen how breast cancer survivors can be very strong. I can't use my (breast cancer) as an excuse to be a wimp."

From a mental and physical standpoint, the women of ROW are anything but wimpy. Gibbons, with her ability to make everyone forget that the word "no" exists, makes sure of that fact. "These women are so incredibly strong," she gushed to me at a recent practice. Daniela Bono, the varsity girls coach at St. Ignatius and a volunteer with ROW, describes a "these women are different" moment she experienced. "I'm in charge of the girls varsity team at St. Ignatius and I hear a lot of 'Do we have to?'-styled complaints from my rowers. Here [with ROW] it's different. I get a lot of 'I just had a chemo session and am exhausted' but never 'Do we have to,'" Bono explained.

Gibbons, the constantly energized, marathon conquering, fundraising, motivating force behind all things Recovery On Water, can think of nothing more important than offering these women a safe harbor and a forum for physical and mental relief from the trials of beating cancer. To that point, while she coaches and coaxes these incredible women to keep going, she, herself, has decided to ratchet up the ante for fundraising. "I'm rowing across the Atlantic Ocean in 2012 to raise money for ROW!," exclaimed Gibbons to me on a cell call. I wasn't drinking anything, but a spit take would've been appropriate. The unyielding positivity of Jenn Gibbons and Recovery On Water had struck again and she'll be damned if the Atlantic Ocean says no to her.

Photo by Kyle Weaver

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Marybeth Pierce / April 29, 2010 4:14 PM

You captured the spirit of Jenn and R.O.W. Thank you! I am a happy and proud member of the team. Jenn "rocks" our boats! Marybeth Pierce

Robyn Hurtig / April 30, 2010 9:34 PM

Thanks for a touching article. Jen, being Jen, will easily fill that boat going across the Atlantic with 7 ROW members and more who are waiting to jump in if needed. We are blessed to have her on our team.

Julia McMurray / May 2, 2010 5:21 PM

As a mother or one of the beautiful ROW members, I can personally attest to their strength, character and ability to meet and embrace life, no matter what is offered.

Nell / May 5, 2010 4:26 PM

An amazing article and so well put. I am constantly inspired by Jenn, just by knowing her and being surrounded by her energy. I support Jenn and R.O.W in the quest to kick cancer's butt! GO ROW!

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