In the sport of crew, you pull together to push ahead.
That’s one of the life lessons that rowing provided for Arshay Cooper, author of A Most Beautiful Thing, the One Book One Community selection for 2022.
In the memoir, Cooper recounts how becoming involved with the first all-Black high school rowing team at Manley High School on the West Side of Chicago transformed his life. Cooper, who eventually became the team captain, later went on to achieve his dream of becoming a chef and is now an activist and motivational speaker.
But what if Cooper would not have tried something new and foreign like crew?
“Talent is everywhere; access and opportunity are not,” said Cooper when asked if he ever ponders how his life would be different if he hadn’t been exposed to rowing. “I want to think I would have been fine, but I was 15 and still had no access to extracurricular activities and wasn't good enough for mainstream high school sports.”
As a 15-year-old in 1997, Cooper was determined to stay away from the drugs and the gangs that he encountered every day. Instead, he focused on studying the culinary arts and he wrote poetry. However, everything really started to click when he discovered rowing.
“Rowing helped activate the hidden leader in me,” he explained. “So, maybe I would have been fine, but not sure that my leadership abilities, commitment, and drive that I learned from sports would have accelerated.”
As Cooper faced his fears of the water and trying something new, he dedicated himself to becoming better at rowing. As he embraced the discipline required to achieve that goal, he started to get noticed by his coaches. Through their encouragement and some success in competition, he began to believe in himself. Together, it all made a world of difference for Cooper as a young man.
“You can do anything you put your mind to,” explained Cooper. “It's also essential for us to understand that we get there much faster when teachers, resources, access, and opportunity are in place.”
That’s where good role models and mentors, such as those that guided Cooper and his teammates in the late 1990s at Manley High, can be the catalyst for success in a young person.
“It is as simple as a bank account,” said Cooper. “You make deposits, you get withdrawals. No deposits, no withdrawals. The same with mentorship/mentee relationships.”
Cooper and his teammates, some of them from rival gangs, had to learn to trust one another in crew, which he describes as the ultimate team sport.
“We could have found that in other sports, but maybe it would have taken longer,” said Cooper. “The difference is this sport is non-combatant and non-conflict. While other sports could trigger the trauma in such a violent community, this sport calms the daily storms out there on the water.”
While building that confidence in one another needed on the water, the Manley Crew were pioneers in rowing – something that was difficult to fathom for Cooper.
“At that time, it was hard to imagine,” explained Cooper. “Especially being at a race of thousands of people and to not see any that look like you. We later found out there was an all-Black rowing team at Howard University (in the 1960s and ’70s), making us the first all-Black high school rowing team. That was great to hear, but it is hard to get our stories told. It took 20-plus years to tell my story. Now that it is told, the doors have been open to many youths of color. The sport is getting more and more diverse every day.”
Cooper has been a force behind the diversification in rowing. A two-time Golden Oar recipient for his contributions to the sport, Cooper has formed The A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Fund, which aims to bring rowing, academic support, and college access to under-resourced communities. In 2021, the foundation introduced 2,000 kids from under-resourced communities to rowing.
The foundation was formed following the success of the highly acclaimed film, A Most Beautiful Thing, which features the story of Cooper. The film is narrated by Common, executive produced by NBA Stars Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade along with Grammy winning producer 9th Wonder, and is directed by Olympian Mary Mazzio.
The film, which won a 2021 Gracie Award and was nominated for several other honors, is based on the book of the same title, originally published under the title Suga Water.
Although Cooper talks about writing poetry in his book and his goal of becoming a chef, he says he never dreamed he would be an award-winning author.
“An author didn't seem realistic while attending a high school that graduates less than 50 percent of its senior class every year,” explained Cooper. “Working in a restaurant seemed more at reach.”
Cooper spent two years with AmeriCorps before graduating from Le Cordon Bleu and becoming a personal chef for professional athletes and other events. But he couldn’t stay away from his true passions, helping youth and rowing.
His journey will bring him to Alliance on March 31 and he says he is looking forward to discovering a new place.
“I have not heard much about Alliance, Ohio,” said Cooper. “And I don't want Google to tell me. I want to show up and see it myself and hear from the good people of Alliance. I am used to walking into unfamiliar spaces.”