100WomenChi: 004. Jenn Junk

Jenn Junk invites me to join her at 6 a.m. for a high-intensity bootcamp workout.

“I’ll die,” I protest.

She insists, “It’ll be great!”

I smile and laugh. This is a woman who, in 2013, completed back-to-back marathons: 26.2 miles on rowing machine one day, 26.2 miles on foot the next. A woman who, this summer, biked 1000 miles around Lake Michigan in 15 days. A woman who, just weeks ago, completed a triathlon.

Yet, with complete sincerity she welcomes a shameless desk jockey like me to join her daily workout. I sense no doubt, no judgment, not even hesitation in her voice. It makes me think for a moment, Yeah, maybe I can do that.

I smile again, this time with amused realization: This is what Jenn does best. She inspires women to discover their own strength. She is the founder and executive director of Recovery on Water (ROW), a non-profit organization that uses the sport of rowing to give survivors of breast cancer the unique opportunity to interact, become active in their recovery, and gain support from fellow survivors.

Finding her own strength, and helping others to do the same, has been a journey. It started in college, when she joined Michigan State’s Division I rowing team. The physical demands of the sport tested Jenn’s limits and helped her build mental fortitude.

“I wasn’t the strongest girl on the team, and I hadn’t rowed in high school — so I was at a disadvantage. It was the first time that I really had to work hard at something. Rowing taught me so much about who I was and who I wasn’t. What I wanted to do and who I wanted to be.”

Jenn also began volunteering with a program affiliated with university’s team that taught rowing to survivors of breast cancer. There, she learned that regular exercise can reduce recurrence of breast cancer by 50%.

Jenn graduated in 2005 and brought her deep love and respect for the sport to Chicago. While working full-time, she teamed up with Ignatius Crew Chicago to launch a similar program, and named it Recovery on Water. She dedicated her mornings, evening and weekends to the nascent organization.

“All 22 years of me started going to breast cancer support group meetings and asking people to let me teach them how to row.”

The first four or five members spread the word, and soon the team began to grow. In 2012, Jenn undertook her biggest challenge yet. She set out to row solo around the perimeter of Lake Michigan to raise funds for ROW. When she returned, ROW’s board of directors offered her a full-time job as their Executive Director. She took a leap of faith, leaving a secure, traditional job to dedicate herself fully to the mission.

The board tasked their new leader with finding a permanent home for the program. Based primarily on the south branch of the Chicago River, ROW had no indoor space to store their boats and no running water or reliable electricity available during their practices.

So, Jenn teamed up with the Park District as well as other local rowing groups to help raise $6 million dollars to allow the construction of a new boathouse.

Three years of hard work followed — coaching the women and leading her organization while also collaborating with the city and her allies to fundraise this tremendous sum. Some aspects came to her easily; communicating and connecting with other comes naturally to her outgoing personality. But some aspects were more of a struggle.

“Sometimes I was afraid to stand up and ask for the things ROW needed. When you run a charity, you’re constantly asking people for money and support — sometimes in large amounts. You have to own the knowledge that their support is being put to good use; that you’re using their money in the best way possible.”

Jenn found the confidence she needed from the sport she loved and the amazing women she had gathered around it.

“Every day I see what this sport can do. Rowing has no limit to what it can do for people… It’s seen as a very elite, preppy sport, but it’s physically accessible for almost everyone…Our survivors come from every walk of life, every economic level.”

“In a novice’s first couple months of rowing, they just transform in front of your eyes. You see them turn from someone who has been through this experience [of cancer] into athletes. Women who are proud of their bodies.”

When Jenn talks about her team, you can hear the love, admiration, and profound respect she has for those she serves. When you hear the rowers talk about Jenn, you see that they feel the same for her.

And when you see Jenn amongst her team, something else becomes clear. In their smiles, you see a supportive community. In their strong arms and backs, you see achievement and renewal. When they row together on the water, you see power. In the face of an illness which makes people feel fearful and weak, Jenn and ROW give these women the opportunity to reclaim their strength.

On August 9, 2015, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel joined Jenn and the ROW team to break ground on their new boathouse. It will become the hub of activity for the ROW team, now 55 women strong.

Speaking on the future of ROW, Jenn states simply:

“It’s easy to want to grow the program, because I see every day what it can do for survivors. It’s an honor to be a part of their journey.”

This article is part of 100WomenChi, a project aimed at interviewing the 100 most interesting women in Chicago. It was originally published in October 2015.