Pulling together: Lessons from first all-Black high school rowing team

Why We Wrote This

Arshay Cooper remembers the moment he realized he had to tell his story, now both a book and a documentary, because “on the other side of that despair, on the other side of that fear, there is courage and healing and hope and the opportunity to grow,” he says.

Clayton Hauck/50 Eggs Films
The Manley crew team returns to the water in Chicago.

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Like much of the nation today, the rowing world, so steeped in symbols of wealth and white privilege, has been reexamining its efforts to make college programs and rowing clubs better reflect the full array of people in society.

Yet if the story of the nation’s first all-Black high school rowing team offers a glimpse of how to make these efforts work – launching Arshay Cooper, author of the 2020 memoir “A Most Beautiful Thing,” as an eager ambassador for a sport that remains overwhelmingly white – it began more simply. It was just an effort to reach out to students who looked like him, who were enduring the same kind of despair he had growing up on the streets of Chicago.

“A teacher would always say, ‘Oh, Arshay, you are a walking storm,’” says Mr. Cooper. “But rowing was the only sport that was able to calm the storm in a lot of us, and it was beautiful.”

Rowing helped calm the storms within him by instilling practical traits: discipline and determination and a deeper understanding of working as a team. “Leave the boathouse better than you found it, which to me means, how do you leave your school, your work, your company better than you found it?” he says. “How do you leave the world better than you found it?”

Arshay Cooper knew, almost in a single moment, that he had to find a way to write his story.

Over 20 years ago, he was captain of the first all-Black high school rowing team, a crew that launched in 1997 when he was a student at Manley Career Academy High School on the West Side of Chicago, in what is still one of the most violent neighborhoods in the nation.

How could a Black kid like him from the West Side of Chicago, “a war zone” of gang turfs and drug corners, he says, punctuated by the perpetual sound of gunshots and police sirens, discover the most peaceful and restoring moments of his life within the rhythmic pulls of rowing?

“A teacher would always say, ‘Oh, Arshay, you are a walking storm,’” says Mr. Cooper, whose 2020 memoir “A Most Beautiful Thing,” along with a documentary of the same name, has captivated the rowing world and many others this year. “But rowing was the only sport that was able to calm the storm in a lot of us, and it was beautiful.” 

Like much of the nation today, the rowing world, so steeped in symbols of wealth and white privilege, has been reexamining its efforts to make college programs and rowing clubs better reflect the full array of people in society.

Yet if the story of the nation’s first all-Black high school rowing team offers a glimpse of how to make these efforts work – launching Mr. Cooper, too, as an eager ambassador for a sport that remains overwhelmingly white – it began more simply. It was just an effort to reach out to students who looked like him, who were enduring the same kind of despair he had growing up on the streets of Chicago.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Arshay Cooper, author of a memoir about the first all-Black high school rowing team, stands next to Newtown Creek in the New York borough of Brooklyn.

It was true – rowing helped calm the storms within him by instilling practical traits: discipline and determination and a deeper understanding of working as a team. “Leave the boathouse better than you found it, which to me means, how do you leave your school, your work, your company better than you found it?” he says. “How do you leave the world better than you found it?”

These values helped set him on a course to become a successful chef after he graduated from Manley, where he cultivated a second passion – for cooking. Without his experiences in rowing, he’s convinced, he would never have studied culinary arts in London, gotten into a training program at the famed Le Cordon Bleu, or, years later, landed a gig with World Wrestling Entertainment as a chef on tour, where he fed famous entertainers like John Cena and the Undertaker.

When he moved to New York City to do something different, to find a bigger stage, he says, he felt called to work with students who were facing the same kind of experiences he had as a teen on Chicago’s West Side. 

So he became a culinary instructor in the city’s public schools, starting a young chef program and continuing to cook in school cafeterias. And he took every opportunity to share the story of Manley crew. 

Not long after he landed one of his first jobs at Beginning With Children Charter School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, he was relating some of the lessons he learned as a rower. 

“And I’ll never forget it,” Mr. Cooper says. “I remember telling them about my mother, how much I hated her at that time, when she’d be gone because of her addictions, how she’d steal money, steal our Christmas presents, leave us for days with nothing to eat.” 

“And then one kid, all of the sudden, he started punching the table – just punching, not stopping,” he says. “One of the teachers told him to leave the classroom, but I told him, ‘No, no, no, you don’t have to leave.’ I said, ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ He shook his head, then kept saying, ‘My mom’s so stupid, my mom’s so stupid.’” 

The boy’s mother had been murdered recently in a nearby project complex, he finally said. Then another student said his uncle, too, had been murdered in the same building the year before. Other students started to share similar stories. 

“I know that we’re raised to be like, don’t say nothing, be tough, be a man, don’t let anyone in,” he says. “But all these young Black boys, these young Hispanic boys, they were crying over these couple of kids who told their stories.”

“What they needed to see was a broken Arshay, a kid whose mother was a drug addict, who never said the word ‘dad’ a day in his life,” Mr. Cooper says. 

His mother had recovered when he was at Manley. She found her way to a program run by Victory Outreach, an urban ministry that includes patients’ families in group discussions. Mr. Cooper remembered how the patients’ stories of pain and trauma left such an impression on him, and in a strange and ironic way, helped them recover and families reconcile.

“That’s when I realized, right then, that ... I wanted to write this story,” says Mr. Cooper. “I felt like it was my responsibility to write this story, because on the other side of that despair, on the other side of that fear, there is courage and healing and hope and the opportunity to grow,” he says.

“I wanted to write how the water was my way.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The home where Arshay Cooper grew up, in a dangerous neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, was torn down and is now a parking lot for a church.

“I have to meet this guy”

In the summer of 2015, Richard Butler received a handwritten letter from a person he doesn’t even remember. But it urged him to read the new self-published memoir “Suga Water” by a former high school rower from Chicago named Arshay Cooper.

At the time, Mr. Butler was the diversity and inclusion manager for USRowing, the governing body of the sport. He was intrigued. For six years part of his job had been to find ways to connect boathouses to a wider range of people in their communities, especially in U.S. cities. Finding role models, so important for garnering interest in the expensive, exclusive sport, was one of his biggest challenges.

“Most boathouses are actually located within urban areas, for lots of reasons,” says Mr. Butler, who became the first Black director of a U.S. rowing club when he ran Three Rivers Rowing Association in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s. “But people in the urban areas are not rowing.”

In 2019, only 1.3% of USRowing’s 75,000 members nationwide identified themselves as Black or African American, the agency reports. In the history of the Olympics, there have only been five Black U.S. rowers.

Since the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other African Americans at the hands of police this year, many in the rowing world have been seeking Mr. Butler out. “I never knew how much of an influencer I was in this sport until my text messages and my social media started blowing up and everyone’s asking for advice,” he says.

Five years ago, however, he was a key catalyst in the emergence of Mr. Cooper as an influencer as well. 

“I was on a plane, and I’m finishing ‘Suga Water,’ and I’m sobbing, like, just smack sobbing in the middle of the flight,” says Mr. Butler. “I thought, oh my gosh, I have to meet this guy.”

At the time, Mr. Cooper didn’t know much about USRowing. He didn’t know much about writing or publishing a book, either. The career chef simply went to YouTube to watch writer’s workshops, reading as many memoirs as he could as well. After self-publishing “Suga Water,” he focused on distributing books to schools and local rowing clubs. 

After they met, Mr. Butler invited Mr. Cooper to speak at USRowing’s national convention – and once again, the sport of rowing changed Mr. Cooper’s life. His audience began to grow by orders of magnitude.

“The stories that he told at the session – and the stories he tells in ‘Suga Water’ and the way he tells them – because they had this roughness, this honesty, they really reached into my heart,” says Pat Tirone, founder and head coach of Delta Sculling Center in Stockton, California.

“I saw Arshay very much as a healer, as someone who could, if he was able to touch my soul, I thought he could touch thousands of souls,” she says. “So I went up to him afterward and I said, ‘Can I buy 10 of your books, to bring back to Stockton?’”

The city of 300,000 in California’s Central Valley has similar problems to Chicago, if on a smaller scale, so she eventually invited Mr. Cooper to come to Stockton to speak. He was tireless in his efforts, she says. He spoke at local schools, and with the help of Ms. Tirone, organized meetings with a Black student caucus in town, and did a spot on the morning news.

“But when he spoke in Stockton’s housing projects, it blew my mind,” Ms. Tirone says. “He had all the grandmas there and they were just brimming with so much hope for their kids afterwards.” 

In the years since, Mr. Cooper’s life has been a flurry of activity on behalf of rowing, beyond his initial hope to reach through the emotional barriers of students living with trauma. In 2017 he founded the only New York City public school rowing team at East Side Community School in Manhattan, and he now sits on the USRowing strategic planning committee for diversity and inclusion. He also works with Row New York, the largest and most diverse rowing program in the country.

“You know, all of this is the kind of stuff we learned in entrepreneurship class while we were rowing in high school,” Mr. Cooper says. “How to become that go-getter, how to get your ideas out there, how to locate key decision-makers.”

He gets emotional when he talks about the instructor of the entrepreneurship class, Ken Alpart, owner of a trading company at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Mr. Alpart was the driving force behind the idea of forming the first all-Black high school rowing team. One of Mr. Alpart’s employees, the late Michael O’Gorman, a medal-winning coxswain for the U.S. national team, suggested they fund a team in one of the troubled neighborhoods in their city. 

“I was excited about the idea of debunking some of the stereotypes surrounding this sport,” said Mr. Alpart, a former rower at the University of Pennsylvania, in the documentary “A Most Beautiful Thing.” At the first meeting in 1997, he told the students, “Michael Jordan wouldn’t be the MVP for rowing, because in a boat of four or eight you will not notice one person, but a team. One unit. Everyone works as one.” 

As many in the rowing world began talking about the memoir “Suga Water,” former Olympic rower and documentary filmmaker Mary Mazzio, who had just released the acclaimed film “I Am Jane Doe,” about sex trafficking, tweeted to @arshaycooper, “A compelling read.” 

“And then this tweet comes immediately rocketing back at me, and my phone rings 20 minutes later, and it’s Arshay Cooper,” says Ms. Mazzio. “It was a perfect storm in many ways. He said, ‘Would you ever ...?’ And I remember gulping, thinking, ‘what a story,’ and it’s a sport we both love. So I was just, like, ‘yes, I’m in, you had me at hello.”

Richard Schultz/50 Eggs Films
Members of the team get together two decades later in Oakland, California, to train for a race in Chicago, in this photo (top) from “A Most Beautiful Thing,” a documentary based on the book.

They formed a plan to reunite the team to race once again at the Chicago Sprints, retelling on camera the basic story of “Suga Water,” which had been picked up by the publisher Flatiron Books in New York and retitled “A Most Beautiful Thing.”

But Mr. Cooper had another idea: He wanted to organize a crew made up of the former Manley rowers and a group of Chicago police officers.

“In Chicago, the relationship with the police is so intense that I just wanted to have that conversation,” Mr. Cooper says. “I have never committed a crime or broken a law or was ever even suspended from school. Still, I had my face pressed down on a police car dozens of times.”

“When we lose an unarmed Black person at the hands of the police, we say, ‘Say their name,’” he says. “And I just thought to myself while we were filming, as everyone was talking about the people we lost to gangs and at the hands of the police, what if they knew our names?”

“We need not just the teacher, not just the store owner, not just the grandmothers; we need the cops to work together with us, too,” he says. 

Forging unlikely friendships

Police officer Louis “big Lou” Green immediately decided to volunteer when his sergeant mentioned that a group of guys from the West Side wanted to row with the Chicago PD.

Just three years on the force, Mr. Green had been a professional basketball player in Germany before coming home to join the police academy, and he thought learning to row would not only be a fun and challenging experience, but also be a way to reach out to different groups. “I’m all about trying to help the community feel good and trying to bring people together,” he says.

A younger millennial, he had decided to study criminal justice when he attended Seattle University, graduating in 2013. “I came from the Chicagoland area where there has been issues between the law enforcement and the rest of the community, and I wanted to be a part of the shifts happening in law enforcement,” says Mr. Green, who also volunteers as a basketball coach for a local community group.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“I’m all about trying to help the community feel good and trying to bring people together.” – Louis Green, one of several Chicago police officers who rowed with a group that included former gang members from the city’s West Side.

Since Mr. Cooper’s memoir had been widely circulating in the rowing world and plans for the documentary were well underway, the five core members of Manley crew had agreed to reunite and race once again. Mr. Cooper also asked the legendary six-time Olympian and current head coach of the men’s U.S. national team, Mike Teti, to help them regain their form. 

Coach Teti agreed and invited them to train in San Francisco with David Banks, one of the five Black rowers who had once competed for the United States in the Olympics. “It was pretty cool what they were trying to do,” says Mr. Banks, who was on the 2008 and 2012 U.S. teams. “These guys, they all went their separate ways after high school – seeing them bond again on the boat, it was really impactful to me.” 

But just as the former crew started to regain their form, Mr. Cooper brought up his notion of training with Chicago police officers.

“When Arshay came up with the idea to row with the cops, I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t really agree with it at all,” says Alvin Ross, who had helped Mr. Cooper and the filmmaker Ms. Mazzio develop the documentary’s story. “I have had run-ins with them since being a kid, and it was always a bad experience.”

Both he and another of the original five, Preston Grandberry, had served time in prison, and both had harrowing experiences with police. Rowing is an intimate sport and demands precise teamwork. Few of the guys thought it was a good idea at first.  

“But, man, the relationship with Big Lou? It was instant, man,” Mr. Ross says, recalling the moment they met with the four Chicago police officers, including Mr. Green. “We didn’t talk much at the [training] tank and everything, but when we were walking down, I asked him if he’d ever been on the water before, and he told me, no.” 

“I’m not really a water sports person, so, yeah getting on and off the boat was a little shaky,” Mr. Green says. “But Alvin and Arshay really just kind of – they found something in me that they liked.”

“The longer I was on the boat, the more comfortable I got with it and I was able to get in a rhythm,” he says. “To have such chemistry is a challenge, but we met it head-on and we did what we came to do.”

As it turned out, the four Chicago police officers agreed to form a men’s eight crew with four of the former Manley rowers and race together at the Chicago Sprints in July 2019. They placed second.

They remain close, and all of them keep in contact on a group text. “We talked as if we knew each other for a long time, you know,” says Mr. Ross. “We talked about going to a barbecue; we talked about getting together after the movie came out, and everything.”  

The coronavirus pandemic interrupted their plans, but Mr. Cooper says after the murder of George Floyd, officers reached out to the crew members, expressing their sorrow, too. Despite being cursed at on the streets as the unrest grew in Chicago and rioters burned police cars and smashed windows, Mr. Green expressed support for Black Lives Matter on his Instagram page.

“I want my city to change,” Mr. Cooper says in the documentary. “I’m so tired of hearing about kids killing kids in my neighborhood. I’m so tired of hearing about the misconduct of police in my community. So how do we fix it?”

Richard Schultz/50 Eggs Films
Malcolm Hawkins works out on a rowing machine as teammates urge him on in Oakland, California, in a photo from the film “A Most Beautiful Thing.”

Finding peace

When Mr. Cooper decided to write the story of the first all-Black high school rowing team, back in that moment of anguish and despair in a New York classroom, his aim was simply to reach young people who were experiencing the same hopelessness he had felt, and to show them the lessons he learned on the water. 

Since then, his book won the Benjamin Franklin Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association for best inspirational memoir, USRowing gave him the Golden Oars Award for achieving measurable success in expanding the diversity of the sport, and the documentary “A Most Beautiful Thing” was narrated by the rap star Common and produced by former NBA stars Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade. 

As Mr. Cooper continues to speak at corporations, boathouses, and colleges about Manley crew and diversifying the sport, he’s given himself yet another challenge. 

“There’s never been an African American male who rowed on American soil in the Olympics,” Mr. Cooper says. “Never. And there’s only been one Black female. I want to be the first to help to make that happen” when the Olympics are held in Los Angeles in 2028.

“That’s the goal,” he says. “How do I get that boat that’s always so white to reflect the diversity in this country? I’m trying to identify those young people. I’m giving them the tools they need and the training they need and the connections they need to be on that podium and then use that platform to tell their stories.”

For Mr. Ross, who spent 4 1/2 years in prison after being involved in a shooting nearly a decade ago, the story of the first all-Black rowing team was deeply personal. “Out there on the water, that’s where everything changed,” says Mr. Ross. “Hearing the oars in the waves, the cars driving by and blowing the horns at us, cheering us on – when you’re outside just runnin’ with the guys you run with, looking for trouble everyday, you’re never at peace.” 

“But being out there on the water, you know, feeling at peace – that changed a lot about us, especially about me.”

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