Captain Of The First All-Black Rowing Team Shares How The Water Changed His Life
In 1997, Arshay Cooper and a group of his classmates formed the first all-Black high school rowing team. Cooper was the team captain, an experience that changed not only the course of his life, but of everyone in that boat.
He now works with students across the country as a coach, including here in L.A. He’s also a motivational speaker and author of “A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America's First All-Black High School Rowing Team,” which inspired a documentary of the same name.
We talked to him about what it felt like to be a trailblazer and what he learned from the experience.
Leadership Fueled By A Rough Start In Life
Q: What was the community that shaped you growing up like?
I grew up on the West Side of Chicago. It’s a community that was built on a lot of trauma because most of our families came from the South in the ‘50s and ‘60s, mostly due to Jim Crow laws. My grandmother actually moved from the South to Chicago after seeing a friend hung on a tree, and a lot of families have suffered from that trauma. But then they move to Chicago and they get redlined. They all lived in certain communities, and they couldn't take out loans or get a mortgage because of the color of their skin, and she saw a lot of things she couldn't unsee.
Q: Do you feel like that generational trauma and racial discrimination affected your childhood and your community?
Growing up, I wouldn’t say it was a bad neighborhood, but it was a neglected, underserved, mistreated community, a community that has so much talent but not a lot of access and opportunity. You could walk out the door, and you are skipping over pools of blood, and you hear gunshots when you sleep, and you run for your life at times. It was hard. We went to Manley Career Academy High School. It was a good school, but it lacked a lot of resources. Less than 50% of the senior class graduated every year and even getting there was hard. You had to take public transportation and avoid gangs along the way.
Q: Who are the people who influenced how you see the world?
I grew up with my mom, who was a single parent. For half her life, she was a drug addict, but she changed her life and became a great mother to us. When my mom came home from [rehab], I would go to meetings with her. There were these Black men who had gone through so much in their lives, who [were] resilient but had been failed by systems. They talked about being a leader and a team player, about investing in those younger than you and finding that gift within yourself and opening it.
So, it started there with those guys and my mom in the AA meetings. I would go and just listen to the [stories] every week. I became a leader quickly by just being around those who were older than me and listening to those who had suffered a lot. When I started rowing, I found a coach that was so patient and was really just a giant to me in so many different ways. It was those coaches and those men in the recovery homes that helped me become who I am today.
A ‘Foreign Sport’
Q: What happened the first time you heard the word “rowing”?
I was walking down to the lunchroom after my third period class, and I saw this white boat. It was absolutely beautiful. Of course, I had no idea how to use it, but I stopped and stared and this little white lady came running over. She said, “Hey, would you like to join the crew team?” Now, in Chicago you’re taught that if someone asks you to join their crew, you turn around and run as fast as you can the other way. But she said, “It’s rowing. Let me show you.” Behind the boat there was a TV monitor showing the Olympic Games. People were rowing so beautifully on the water. I knew that this would be a great opportunity, but the faces and the crowds didn’t reflect the people I was used to so I initially said no. But, the next day I went to the info session. There were these kids I didn’t know. They were sons of drug addicts, drug dealers, and I just thought, “How in the heck is this gonna work?”
Q: How were the members of the team selected? Was it a competitive process?
The good thing about rowing, even now, is that there are a lot of seats for those who are Black and who want to row. Because basketball, football and baseball are so popular, and everyone wants to be a part of those teams, not everyone’s going out for the rowing team. There’s a lot of fear around the water. It’s a foreign sport. It's not a “cool” sport; you just work. The coaches said they’d take as many as they could and, for us, that was 20. It was really hard to get people to face their fear to go out on open water and trust the coaches — many who didn’t look like them — in a sport [dominated by folks] who didn’t look like them, and to want to be a part of that.
A Brotherhood Forged On Open Water
Q: How did your friends and family respond when you joined the rowing team?
When we joined the rowing team, the football team, the basketball team made fun of us. They would sing, “Row, row, row, your boat!” in the hallway. We would get folks saying , “Hey, you know they’ve got you rowing around like slaves on a slave ship.” We got a lot of heat, even from coaches, football coaches, who would come to us and say, ‘Hey, that’s a rec sport, not a real sport. Come play football.” We didn’t get a lot of respect. At home, you have people who are like, “If you’re going to put all that energy toward a sport, put it toward a sport that’s gonna make you some money in the future. Don’t waste your time [rowing].” I think it was hard for everyone to see.
The [rowing] coaches had to bring together 20 young people from different neighborhoods in different gangs and try to create a brotherhood. That was rough. The coaches said to us, “This is not just about being an athlete. It’s about being a great human first and then an athlete.” Every practice would start off with an icebreaker where we would get to know each other with questions like, “What keeps you up at night? What was it like growing up for you?“
Q: What was the turning point in the team dynamic?
It wasn’t until we got on the water, and we saw everyone was scared, that everyone had fear. You were being pushed onto open water, and there were times when it was choppy. There was so much fear that you were going to do whatever it took to survive. The same thought process and survival mode that told you to run when you hear a gunshot told you, “OK, when you are out on the open water, you have to pull for each other in order to get back to the dock safely.”
Fighting For Acceptance, For Visibility
Q: In some sports, the majority of athletes are affluent and the price of participation excludes many from low-income communities from taking part. Was that a dynamic you encountered in competitive rowing?
I think it was definitely a disadvantage competing against the private school kids. What most people don't realize is that a [good] rowing boat is the same price as a Mercedes. We had the oldest, hand-me-down boat you could imagine. People looked at us as a pet project or something. Other schools and private schools all had a lot of money and boosters. And at the boathouse, the images, the decor, the paintings were all of white rowers. So, the white kid shows up and can [imagine] themselves competing as a college athlete, as an Olympian. We go there and nothing reflects us. It doesn’t feel like home so every day feels like an away game. Our team traveled through Lincoln Park [one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Chicago that borders Lake Michigan], known as the “segregated city.” So, not only were we dealing with race days but race issues and racism.
I think the history of sports has taught us that, as Black people, we use obstacles as fuel to overcome them. We get better. We figure it out. I have been working at this for six years now. I’ve been working hard, and I’ve developed a team and we have been going out recruiting thousands of students a year into rowing. Not everyone stays with it, but we are seeing a lot more than there were when I started.
Q: What is the legacy you want to be remembered for within your community?
A person who can unite people who normally wouldn’t be around each other. I think, for me, that person is not just a unifier, but represents hope. When I roll up in my neighborhood, I don’t want people to see me as a chef, an author, a rower. I want them to say that’s the hope for my community. When you think of Harriet Tubman, you don't say, “Oh that’s the Union spy.” Even though that was her career, she’s known for the freedom that she brought to our people. Or, when you think of Gandhi you don't say, “Oh, the attorney.” No, you think of the peace that he brought to the world. Even now, when I hear Harry Belafonte I don't say, “Oh, the actor,” I say, “Oh, the activist.” So, when you represent something bigger than yourself, true impact happens in these communities. I want them to think of me and align that with hope. If we could each embrace that mindset, I think we would be living in a different place.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.