Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Arshay Cooper of 'A Most Beautiful Thing' Keeps Changing the World, One Life at a Time

Illustration for article titled Arshay Cooper of A Most Beautiful Thing Keeps Changing the World, One Life at a Time
Image: 50 Eggs Films


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

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Arshay Cooper is a patriot. He remembers growing up and learning all the pretty and noble words of our Founding Fathers while going to school on Chicago’s West Side.

“Every day I woke up and put my right hand on my chest and pledged allegiance to the flag,” Cooper said. “We had to learn the Constitution, I memorized the Preamble. I learned to recite the Declaration of Independence.

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“I remember going to my first baseball game (White Sox) and singing the National Anthem and putting my hand over my heart.”

Arshay Cooper is a rower. He was on the first all-Black high school rowing team, at Manley High in Chicago, more than 20 years ago. It was a life-changing experience for him and his friends, all sparked by the actions of one white man, Ken Alpart, a coach who dared to start a rowing program in Chicago’s West Side.

“I never thought I could be friends with someone who didn’t look like me,” Cooper said. “I remember walking in the lunchroom that day and seeing that boat and saying, ‘Hell no.’ And seeing nothing but white people in this sport. It’s not only a white sport, but a rich white sport.”

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It was the beginning of a journey that brought Cooper and his teammates out of the dark paths and countless tragedies of their lives that were the reality of the West Side. The experience led to entrepreneurial opportunities for Cooper and his friends.

Cooper wrote a book about his experience, rereleased this month under the title A Most Beautiful Thing. A documentary by the same name, directed by award-winning filmmaker Mary Mazzio (a former Olympic rower herself), will be released Friday to Comcast viewers on Xfinity, and on NBC Universal starting Sept. 1, and Amazon Prime in October. Executive producers include Dwyane Wade, Grant Hill, and rapper Common, who also narrates.

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Illustration for article titled Arshay Cooper of A Most Beautiful Thing Keeps Changing the World, One Life at a Time
Image: 50 Eggs Films

Another part of the reality of growing up on the West Side was getting abused by cops. Cooper remembers the first time he had his face pressed down on the hood of a car. He was just a kid.

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“We’re 12, 13, not doing anything. When a stranger puts his hands on you, it really starts a riot inside of you. Even though you don’t react right away.

“When it’s happening numerous times, being pulled over, I start thinking to myself, ‘Maybe it’s because there’s a few gangs here.’”

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After getting into rowing, Cooper met other rowers, white kids. He would visit their homes, in neighborhoods where there are no gangs. He would still get stopped and get harassed by police.

“I remember asking the guy, the white kid, ‘Does this happen to you guys?’ They say no. And I realized I’m living in a different America.

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“So next time i’m going to a baseball game, I didn’t really want to put my hand over my heart and sing anymore.”

… all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. …

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Arshay Cooper is a healer. He believes in the power of sports to bring people together and to teach life lessons.

When Cooper and his former teammates reunited after the death of one of their coaches, it ultimately led to Cooper becoming a roving rowing instructor. He now talks to kids all over the country, and helps them start rowing programs.

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One of the young rowers he’s helped mentor is Conrad Palmer from New York City. Palmer will be rowing for Hobart William and Smith Colleges, with the goal of becoming the first African-American Olympic rower to compete on U.S. soil in the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.

“He saw something in me before I saw it in myself,” said Palmer, who turned 18 on Thursday. “He’s a funny guy, he can put things in perspective. He’s been a fighter for me and my family.”

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“Conrad will not only be the ‘It Factor’ for the next generation of Black rowers, but all rowers,” Cooper said. “I’ve seen him spend hours beating on his craft, and become a rower that college coaches were asking for. I mentor Conrad just to be a leader. He was on my youth leadership team. He was a leader out of 270 youth at Row New York and had the fastest erg time there. I soon start seeing him gathering young, Black, middle-school male rowers under his wings.”

As for the L.A. Games, Cooper says, “He will get there, no doubt, and everyone believes that. When it happens, it will be a most beautiful thing.”

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Mazzio’s documentary shows how rowing gave Cooper and his teammates a sense of purpose, a sense of serenity, just by being away from the noise and violence and sounds of gunfire and police sirens. But getting to that point was scary, as the guys didn’t even swim.

A startling fact: 64% of Black children cannot swim. It’s just another way that systemic racism and its corollary, privilege, impacts every aspect of everyone’s life.

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“There’s this history of, especially when people moved from the South, pools are segregated. White people mostly use the pools. Black people don’t have the resources to learn how to swim or even have pools in your neighborhood,” Cooper explains. “If you go to a pool, you hang out in four feet of water, maybe. There’s a history there.”

Along with telling the story of these young men’s lives, Mazzio’s film documents the horrors of generational trauma. Included in the film is a study that shows children in the inner city suffer post-traumatic stress disorder at higher rates than soldiers in combat.

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“You think about white schools, when they have school shootings they send in trauma counselors,” Cooper said. “But we see shootings every day — where are the trauma counselors? Where are the resources? Young Black men wouldn’t redistribute the pain to people who look like them if they had resources, opportunities.”

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security ...

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Cooper brings up Black-on-Black crime in Chicago, a favorite whataboutism of those who know nothing about Black communities.

“Every day we are having ‘Stop the Violence’ rallies, having programs in schools. We are holding our community accountable. Every day, I am seeing more people standing up against racism. Where are the cops standing up against police brutality? We need them to be held accountable, too.”

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Cooper said he would go up to police in his neighborhood and learn their names, as it shocked him that so many officers would work the same beat for years and not get to know anyone in the neighborhood.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” Cooper says, “and when you’re a cop in that neighborhood, you have to be part of that village.”

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It was Cooper’s idea to bring in members of the CPD to become part of his team.

“It wasn’t a popular decision at first,” he said. “But my way is always, ‘We have to have conversations.’ We saw George Floyd and this cop, he had this look as if he’s protected and he had no value for his community and this Black man’s life. We have to live in that community. I’m not sure how the cops value their life. I needed to find cops who know who we are.”

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“I wanted to change the narrative.”

Cooper asked the police on the team, if they saw a kid who was in trouble, to take them to the boathouse in Chicago.

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“I said in the film, this doesn’t change the system, but it’s a start, one cop at a time. I think there will always be cops. But I do believe funds have to be reallocated, some of those funds have to go to social services, to many things that have to go to the neighborhoods.”

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Cooper told the CPD members that he hopes they can join forces to serve their communities.

“When something goes wrong in my neighborhood, when I see a kid doing something that they’re not supposed to, we can stop them. That also means when you see a cop doing something that he’s not supposed to be doing, you stop them.

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“Those guys that we rowed with are good guys. They were the good guys. We need the good guys to stand with us.”

Arshay Cooper can change the world — one block at a time, and one boat at a time.

Managing editor. Former N.Y. Daily Newser. Former broke poker player.

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