For Arshay Cooper, growing up on Chicago’s West Side – one of America’s toughest ‘guns and gangs’ neighbourhoods – could have been a life sentence of poverty, substance abuse and crime. Then one day, a chance encounter with rowing changed his life’s course.
Cooper wrote about his experiences as captain of America’s first all-black high school rowing team in the book, Suga Water, originally published in 2015. It was recently re-released and turned into a critically acclaimed documentary, A Most Beautiful Thing, directed by award winning filmmaker and former US Olympic rower, Mary Mazzio. With systemic racism in the public eye as never before, Cooper’s story provides a recipe for change.
World Rowing spoke with Cooper about growing diversity in the sport and his enduring hope for the future of America.
“On my block, you were respected for carrying a gun and criticized for carrying a book. I always hoped it would change because I didn’t want other kids to grow up like I did, never knowing what it is like to feel safe.” – Arshay Cooper, A Most Beautiful Thing
When Cooper’s all-black crew first took to the water in 1997, it was a life-changing moment for Cooper and his classmates. Turning that moment into a national movement has taken the dedication of time and treasure from a growing number of people committed to opening up the sport.
As for Cooper, after graduation, he fulfilled a life-long dream of attending culinary school and worked for years as a world-class chef. He’s now feeding the souls of America’s inner-city youth.
“It is about access to opportunity,” says Cooper. “I don’t want to change the sport. I want to add to it – different faces, different perspectives – adding cultural competency, diversity, equity training to coaching.”
“There are a lot of kids in places like where I grew up where they can walk up to the basketball court and just practice their craft,” he says. “When everyone has access like that to rowing and every boathouse can afford the same high quality equipment, when we see equality in the sport, when a kid can show up at a boathouse and have the same opportunity to row and be recruited to college, then I’ll feel that my mission is complete.”
It is a lofty goal, yet the work of Cooper and his colleagues has proven rowing’s power to heal individuals and communities when the boathouse doors are swung open. Over the years, he has been involved with a number of programmes opening up rowing to low-income urban youth, starting some himself and supporting many others.
“I didn’t think we could get along with people who didn’t look like us, but rowing changed that for me. Crew changed our mindset, lifestyle, work ethic […] The experience was never just about rowing, it was about bridging the water.”
As for the wave of anti-racism protests that have recently swept across the United States – and the world – Cooper sees it as a chance for meaningful conversations and action.
“I think folks are no longer in denial,” he says. “Folks understand that it is not enough to say, ‘I am not racist’. You have to educate yourself; you have to take action.”
“In these protests, people begin to see as they learn and listen. Then you become more active. People are saying, ‘ok now that I am home from my protest, what am I doing now? What else can I do?’
“There have been folks who just want to recruit kids to rowing, people of colour, but they weren’t training their staff to recognise what these young kids are going through,” says Cooper, who believes that even the best of intentions can fall flat without understanding and compassion.
“You want to create a warm and welcoming environment and listen to what people are going through,” he says.
“While [others] are all about what happens in the boat, our focus is more on how this unlikely lifeboat is changing our lives outside it […] There is no more noble trophy we can gain.”
For all that, there is a cost to things like boathouses, boats and blades. When it comes to who pays the bills for these organisations, Cooper says it is simple: fundraise.
“First,” he explains, “you ensure the funding. Find folks who are passionate about the sport and want to see the diversity and share the lessons of the sport. Then you build a board.”
“The second thing is finding passionate and good coaches,” he continues. “We train these coaches to understand young people but also the communities they are in, the history of these communities.”
The third thing is building a relationship with the schools,” Cooper says. “We ask if we can speak to the kids who didn’t make the other teams. Then we tell them that there is an opportunity to travel, to go to college.”
While rowing focuses everyone’s energy, the active ingredient is what happens outside the boat.
“We build the programme around rowing, academic support and mentorship,” he adds. “We bring in Olympians, community leaders, do career days, give opportunities to travel, visit college campuses and stuff like that.”
“We don’t just live to row, we row to live.”
“When you are on the water and you feel that healing power and change, it would be selfish not to give that opportunity to more young people”, says Cooper. “Someone gave this opportunity to me.”
Through the simple act of putting more hands on oars Cooper is restoring hope to those set adrift from the American dream. As for his own dream, Cooper is determined that young rowers see themselves in the faces of US rowers on the Olympic podium.
“Not only do I hope there will be more Arshays out there, but also that the Los Angeles 2028 podium will reflect the diversity of this country,” he says, pointing out that while the United States has hosted the Games four times before – more than any other nation – that no black man and only one black woman has ever raced for Olympic gold as an American rower on American water.
“That is gold for me.”