Recovery on Water

By Kari Lydersen

As the women of Recovery on Water, or ROW, slide their sleek boats into the Chicago River’s South Branch on a blustery summer day, a big bloated fish and an old sneaker bob in the water. But it’s cleaner than usual, likely because of the wind, they note. Questionable water quality doesn’t deter them; they’ve gotten used to “Chicago white fish” – their coy term for floating condoms – and even untreated sewage in the river.

These women are not easily deterred.

They’ve all survived breast cancer, and taken up rowing as a healing, bonding and growing experience, many of them with no previous paddling or even athletic experience.

Some describe rowing as the “ultimate team sport.”

The ROW team carries their boat down to the river. Photo by Lloyd Degrane
The ROW team carries their boat down to the river. Photo by Lloyd Degrane

“You could be the best rower in the world and it doesn’t mean anything unless you are in sync with the others,” said team member Joan Neal, a University of Chicago law school professor who had never rowed before.

“You can’t do it on your own, you have to do it in unison,” said Jennifer Gibbons, who co-founded ROW in 2008 after rowing at Michigan State University and coaching at St. Ignatius High School, which rows out of the same Bridgeport location as ROW. “If one person is having a bad day, everyone is having a bad day.”

This is understandable as one watches the team’s typical practice. Rowing takes precise coordination and teamwork along with physical strength, endurance and technique. It’s challenging even in the best of conditions, and on this day, they must contend with a strong wind and passing barges, tour boats, tug boats and motorboats that kick up considerable wake – despite a no-wake zone along the entire river.

Photo by Lloyd Degrane
Photo by Lloyd Degrane

On this evening it becomes clear that Kym Reynolds is having a rough workout. She’s a former power lifter wearing a gray T-shirt with pink shiny letters that say, “Go, Fight, Cure.” As she gets frustrated, coach John Albrecht calls out from the motorboat tracking the rowers, “Kym, for the next set the only thing I want you to think about is sitting up straight.” The other women in the boat encourage Reynolds, and they make it through a workout involving spurts of different cadences, effort levels and drills. “Watching it on TV, it looks so beautiful and easy. But it’s nothing like that,” Reynolds says after the workout.

Nonetheless, she loves it. She started with ROW on the advice of an anger management therapist helping her deal with the emotions sparked by cancer. She first met the team during the winter when they work out indoors at the Bridgeport Arts Center. Then they moved into the river.

“At first it wasn’t pretty! I caught every crab,” said Reynolds, using a term for mishaps like getting hit by the oars. She said she would curse and ask her teammates to let her out of the boat. “But my car kept taking me there” for the next practice.

Reynolds stuck with it and has even rowed in the Thames in London with another breast cancer survivors group. She gets extra encouragement from Kathleen Behner, who sits directly in front of her in the boat.

“Kathleen has been my rock,” Reynolds says. “For two years I’ve been watching that back.”

Photo by Lloyd Degrane
Photo by Lloyd Degrane

Rowing offers significant physical, mental and emotional benefits for almost anyone, and especially for survivors of an illness like breast cancer. The concentration, camaraderie and physical exercise are invaluable on many levels, the women say. And studies have shown exercise greatly reduces the risk of cancer recurrence, while also helping recovery from surgery or chemotherapy.

“People come to ROW from different points in recovery – I came six months out of chemo,” said Julie Toole. “That wrecks your body, I lost a lot of muscle tone. So it’s great to come back, have something to focus on, getting the strength of your muscles back, and the coaches and teammates are so empathetic.”

Gibbons said that many of the team members “are not support group-type of gals” and have not gone to other survivors’ programs. But they get moral support and practical advice from ROW teammates, including essential support if cancer resurfaces and advice on decisions like whether to have a double or single mastectomy.

“You go through this experience feeling that you can’t control what happens to your body, but then you’re in this empowering environment where you can take care of your body and be proactive,” said Gibbons, 30, who does not have personal or family experience with breast cancer but now feels she has “like 60 surrogate mothers” who do.

ROW practices several times a week, with beginner and more experienced groups. They work out year-round, with winter workouts on rowing machines in the art center. The women often go out to eat or have a drink after workouts. And they compete in several competitions each year, including a sprint regatta in the Lincoln Park lagoons in the summer and a race in the Milwaukee River in September.

“You never stop learning, there are so many nuances, it’s always something new,” said Jackie Aguilera. “It’s become a lot of our lives – not only for breast cancer recovery but we’ve become social friends.”

They’ve also become activists or advocates, thanks to the ongoing push to improve water quality in the Chicago River. ROW started on the North Branch of the river near North Avenue, but soon outgrew that location and moved its base to the launch in Bridgeport on Eleanor Street. They row on the South Branch of the river and also Bubbly Creek, the offshoot infamous for the bubbles caused by decaying carcasses dumped by the stockyards in decades past.

A dead fish floats among the surface muck at Bubbly Creek. Photo by Lloyd Degrane
A dead fish floats among the surface muck at Bubbly Creek. Photo by Lloyd Degrane

Untreated sewage is frequently released in this stretch of the river, as the system’s combined storm and wastewater sewers are overwhelmed during heavy rains. Though the women haven’t let water quality stop them, it is a serious concern. Behner was hospitalized for several days this summer because of an infected blister. Coach Devlin Murdock notes that “blisters are as much a part of rowing as oars and boats,” and team members strongly suspect the infection came from the river water too.

Neal helped connect ROW with the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago, and they’ve been working together for more than a year to participate in the policy debate regarding water quality and sewage releases. Team members have testified at Illinois Pollution Control Board hearings and otherwise offered their input, including demands that the water quality in the South Branch be brought up to standards officially safe for recreation.

Penn Gibbons of ROW Photo by Lloyd Degrane
Jenn Gibbons of ROW
Photo by Lloyd Degrane

“It can be pretty gross,” said Gibbons of the water. “Some survivors have compromised immune systems. If someone is in chemo we don’t take them on the river. But some who are in treatment choose to row anyway.” In August, the city held an official ground-breaking for a new boat house at the Eleanor Street site that ROW uses along with St. Ignatius, the University of Chicago and the Chicago Training Center, a program that makes rowing accessible to youth from low income neighborhoods. The Lincoln Park Boat Club and the University of Illinois at Chicago also use the site.

The $7 million boat house, one of four being built by the Chicago Park District, is expected to increase awareness of and interest in the river even more. ROW has been doing fundraisers to afford rent at the boat house. In 2012, Gibbons rowed 1,500 miles around Lake Michigan to raise money and awareness. This summer, she biked around Lake Michigan, with many supporters joining her over the course of the 15-day trip.

Gibbons noted that ROW has been collaborating in various ways with the Chicago Training Center and plans to expand the connection. For example, the youth often help the women carry their boats to the water, especially since surgeries have made it harder for some of them to do that. And the women hope to launch a tutoring program with the young rowers.

“These are people who might never have met otherwise,” said Gibbons. “But they have rowing in common.”

Posted April 25, 2016