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Women Take on Bubbly Creek to Battle Breast Cancer

To get into a particular Chicago rowing group, you need to belong to an exclusive and unlikely club. Recovery on Water or ROW is for breast cancer survivors. They compete – but not against other survivors – they race women who've never had the disease.

Nat: I think we're all ready, can we go?

Nearly two dozen women clad in windbreakers and work-out pants stand by the Chicago River. They're about to brave the infamous Bubbly Creek in long rowing shells that are only 2-feet wide. It doesn't matter to them that it's a cold and windy April day, or that the water's so dirty dead birds aren't uncommon.

They're so eager, they're nearly dancing. They've been practicing indoors all winter.

YAY, back on the water, whoo

They row away, oars dipping and rising in unison. What makes this group so unusual isn't just the polluted stew they practice in. These women all have breast cancer or have survived it.

Some studies show that regular exercise may reduce the risk of recurrence 45 to 50 percent. That's why Coach Jenn Gibbons started Recovery on Water.
GIBBONS: Support groups are great and support networks are awesome, but there's nothing vague about our mission. We are a rowing team for survivors. We provide the opportunity for them to exercise to fight cancer.

The women meet a few times a week to practice indoors. From spring to fall, they're on the Chicago River, too.

When Coach Jenn suggested racing, co-founder Sue Ann Glaser thought she was kidding.

GLASER: We thought, a race? That's silly. We were really at that point all middle-aged ladies in spandex.

Glaser says she'd never stuck with an exercise program before. Now, in her 60s as a survivor, she's in the best shape of her life.

GLASER: I found myself walking through the parking lot, swaggering a little bit, and saying to myself, I am an ath-lete. Which was such a silly thing for me at my age. But I guess that's what empowerment is in a way.


Glaser, the coach and the rest of the team reach out to newcomers at a March open house.

Lisa Johnson arrives with a brightly patterned scarf over her head. It's become a fashion statement that makes her feel better during chemo. She's 35.

JOHNSON: I've got a lot of life left to life. From everything that we've read and heard, I really need to drop weight, I need to be more athletic, if I want to keep cancer from coming back. It's scary to think my life kind of depends on it in some ways.

GIBBONS:  Did your doctor suggest you exercise during treatment?
GIBBONS: You need to come out.
GIBBONS: Do you want to hop on with me, just for a second?

Johnson, like nearly all the women, has never rowed before -- outside of attempts at a health club. She approaches the machine cautiously. Coach Jenn straps in her feet.
NAT: Tryy and lock your elbows...

Nearby, there's a young woman with blond hair and blue eyes who could have stepped out of an Eddie Bauer ad .

GRIMES: It's hard now having scars or having lost your hair and trying to date. Through all of that, you just feel like you've lost a part of yourself.

Jennie Grimes is 30, and she's a social worker for people with HIV. She grew up outdoors in Colorado. Before she got diagnosed with cancer, she'd run seven marathons.

GRIMES: Being really active and having that taken away from me has been really hard. Not being able to just go for a run because I'm scared I'm gonna throw up or just not being strong enough, feeling tired.

Grimes says she wants to reclaim her body.

She starts at the very next practice.

NAT: Is everybody ready?

The women work out in a huge empty commercial space. They settle side by side on rowing machines, grab the handles and  row without breaking rhythm.
Grimes is determined to keep up.

During breaks, the women talk treatments and side effects like hot flashes.

GRIMES: I don't know if I'm hot or if I'm sweating or if it's just from Tamoxifen (laughter).

The women joke and laugh like this a lot. But they're serious about rowing.

GRIMES: I'm all competitive with myself. I will master this machine.

Sue Ann Glaser reassures  Grimes.

GLASER: Still you've been through the mill in the last year
GRIMES: Yeah, still, I think that's maybe why, I'm like, argh, cancer, argh.
GLASER: Yes, kill cancer.

By the end of practice, Grimes is so exhausted she can hardly stand. But she keeps coming back. So does Johnson…

NAT:  Ok, let's see who's here…

Johnson stands by the river with other newbies. She's here to experience her first rowing shell. She steps in gingerly as volunteers from the Ignatius Chicago team hold it steady at the dock.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I'm more worried about getting out.
NAT: Tap down….now you're getting it.

JOHNSON: It was cool, I'm really worn out.
TEAM MEMBER: You did it, you did it.

Johnson decides she needs more practice and stamina before attempting the river. She can tell how much team members rely on each other.

She's about to start radiation, and she'll develop swelling that halts her rowing. But she'll do yoga with coach Jenn to keep involved. And she'll go to the races to cheer the team.

JOHNSON: 'Cuz I think in a way, I'm cheering on my future self.

While Johnson's trying the shell out, Grimes hits the water. But first, she shows off her bruises.

NAT: Awesome, that a girl.

She and seven others row facing backward keeping their arms straight, pushing off with their heels to tap the power in their legs.

The coxswain faces forward, steering the shell, telling the women when to stroke.

GRIMES: I was like, oh my gosh, we're going to win. It felt so great being out there, we're all in sync, you feel the energy and the surge of the water, you feel strong,  you're like, Woo, I'm she-woman. It's only Monday.

Grimes says she's still afraid of tipping over. But the history these women share makes it easier to trust.

GRIMES: You feel alive when you're out there, you don't feel like you're sick. You just feel like there's trees, and you have support, I don't feel like I have cancer when I'm out there. Maybe I just leave it on the shore.

Unfortunately, the threat doesn't remain on the shore always.

GRIMES: I just went in yesterday, because I've been having hip pain because I've been getting back into running. They're worried it's in my bones. Yeah. So that's where that is today.

She doesn't have biopsy results. That doesn't stop Grimes.

NAT: This is the five-minute launch window for race 28…..

Supporters line the Lincoln Park lagoon with tents and coolers. Grimes arrives on crutches. She came back early from vacation to make the race.

Nat: Novice fours, here you go.

The new rowers huddle around Coach Jenn.

Nat: You look so nervous. You guys are gonna be great, it's going to be so fun.

Grimes leaves her crutches behind. She's wearing a ROW T-shirt covered with rhinestones…and ribbons.

Her team flies down the lagoon rowing hard against the other team.


But the other team pulls ahead. There are no medals for ROW today. As seriously as the women take this, that's not what it's about.

GRIMES: We had cancer or have cancer, but we're still out here on a beautiful day, acting like we don't, proving we can still have our lives back.

NOTE: Recovery on Water is competing again this weekend in Wisconsin. Coach Jenn Gibbons plans to row across the Atlantic Ocean by herself to raise money for the group to help it expand.

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