BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR
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Arshay Cooper spoke to my school on MLK Day. Cooper is the author of A Most Beautiful Thing, the book on which Boston-area rower and Olympian Mary Mazzio based a superb film. Since an earlier version of the book was published in 2015, Cooper has taken his message to audiences across the country. Together with Mazzio and a raft of corporate partners, including Hudson Boat Works, Concept2, and the George Pocock Rowing Foundation, they created the A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Fund.
Cooper and the fund have provided resources for new rowing clubs in Newburgh, N.Y., Stockton, Calif., Chicago, Baltimore, and Newark that reach out to underserved communities. If you’ve read the book, you know that he has an authentic voice, and so it’s no surprise that he’s a dynamic and inspirational speaker. We were lucky to have him speak at our MLK Day events.
He grew up on Chicago’s West Side, a neglected part of the city, where he was accustomed to witnessing drive-by shootings, gang violence, and drug addiction. But his life was changed forever when one day at his high school, Manley Career Academy, he went into the lunchroom and saw a long white boat in slings.
“There was a white lady telling people that she was hoping they would try out for a new rowing team that she was starting with the principal’s blessing,” he recalled. This isn’t for us, Cooper and his friends thought. Even the boat is white. But the next day there was a sign up next to the boat promising free pizza to those who signed up. That was a powerful drawing card, and Cooper decided to give it a try, much to the consternation of a couple of his friends.
But he soon found that his time on the water brought peace. “I was away from the gunshots, the sirens, and all the noise that I lived with. I had tried basketball and football, but this was the only sport that calmed the storms within me,” he said. And so, he became one of the founding members of the first all-black high-school rowing team. Those storms were not extinguished but rather channeled. “I had fire inside of me,” he said, “but I needed to find out how to make that fire inside burn brighter than the fires that surrounded me.”
Our students were enthralled and spellbound as he told some of his stories. He talked about driving to a small city in Ohio a little while ago to give a speech at the local high school. “As I got close, I noticed Confederate flags everywhere and I thought, ‘What am I doing here? Maybe I should just turn around and head home.’ But I went into the auditorium. There wasn’t a single Black face there.” He gave his speech, about the power of inclusion, getting to know each other as athletes and people. At the end, one student said, “Thank you. You’ve helped me unlearn everything that my parents have taught me.”
He left us with three lessons:
“Don’t let small distractions destroy your journey.”
“You have to work well with others. One person can’t do the work of eight. But eight can do the work as one.”
“Don’t listen to negativity.”
A key moment in his talk came when he asked the athletes in the room to stand, to identify their sport, and to share the one word they learned from their coaches. “Gratitude,” offered one. “Rhythm,” said another. “Determination.” “Strength.”“Kindness.” “Confidence.” “Teamwork.” “Accountability,” “Perseverance.”
Cooper drew near the close of his talk. “Not a single one of you talked about winning or scoring goals or making baskets. There is so much in sports. Those are the words that will change the culture of your school, of your team, of your community.”
A student asked Cooper for his word.
“Connection,” he said. “Learning to connect not with those who are like me but with those who are unlike me and those who look different from me. We’ve got to find a way to connect.”
The truth in his voice, the power of his stories of growing up in Chicago’s toughest neighborhood, and the relief that he found on the water with his Manley teammates made this a talk that many students said they would never forget. Cooper and they did indeed connect.
I urge you to read his book. Watch the movie on YouTube or Peacock. Try to hear him speak in person. He is the best possible representative for rowing.