An American Story
History - American Released - Apr 07, 2021
The first time Arshay Cooper laid his eyes on one of the "long, thin, snazzy white boats" of crew racing was in the gym at Manley Career Academy high school. He thought, "Oh no . . . you ain't gonna get black people rowing down the lake like slaves."
However, with the encouragement of coach Jessica and program sponsor Ken Alpart, Arshay Cooper had a change of heart, and signed up. The decision changed his life, and is the subject of new book, "The Most Beautiful Thing," by Arshay Cooper. Cooper's story is the story of a poor kid from the wrong side of town, who through dedication and hard work, beats the odds and succeeds; indeed, Cooper's story is a decidedly American story.
Before rowing, Cooper's life's prospects were not promising. He was not a good student, not popular in school, and not particularly motivated, other than to become a short-order cook. He lived in a two bedroom house in one of the most economically depressed neighborhoods on Chicago's West Side. His mother was a recovering alcoholic, and his father was seldom home. As much as he resisted the idea of crew racing, he was intrigued by the sales pitch of sponsor Ken Alpart.
"There are no all-black public high school crew teams," Alpart said. "You will be the first. . . . I went to Flower Career Academy, Marshall, and many public schools in the area and they all rejected it, saying this sport wasn't for their students, that it would not work." (note: It was the principal at Manley High School who gave Alpart the green light).
"We are not just trying to give you the opportunity to row," Alpart added. "We want to give you the opportunity to think outside the box, be young entrepreneurs, go to Ivy League colleges, and travel the United States."
"Seems too good to be true," was Cooper's first reaction, but he and seven of his friends signed up anyway to see what it was all about.
What Cooper discovered, was the sport was mostly about training, doing a lot of running, and working to exhaustion on a rowing machine called the erg. While coach Jessica helped them master timing and the proper rowing technique, Cooper and his teammates spent a great deal of time working with Victor, their strength and conditioning coach. Most of them had never been swimmers before and were afraid of water, something coach Jessica helped them overcome by teaching them how to swim. Ken Alpert, meanwhile, taught them about "eating clean"–establishing and maintaining a diet of good nutrition.
That first year was brutal, and about half the students dropped out. But those who stuck it out, were rewarded with a trip to Philadelphia and a visit to the college campus of Pennsylvania University, where they met a number of college students who were themselves rowers. Later that spring they entered their first competition where they started strong, only to crash their boat against the brick wall that lined the water course. They recovered and finished third. "Every one does it," coach Jessica told them. The lesson was clear–they were strong rowers, but not yet working as a team.
In time, they mastered timing, and working as a unit became a formidable team, an experience Cooper describes as "a most beautiful thing."
Still the team suffered a number of setbacks, as various students dropped out of the program, while Victor, their popular strength and conditioning coach, also left the program. Due to his commitment and willingness to work hard, Cooper was made team captain, and was asked to recruit replacements. Meanwhile, a football coach, who was impressed with Cooper's training habits, tried to recruit him to join the football team. By then, Cooper had developed a strong relationship with Ken Alpart, and decided to stick it out with crew racing.
As promised Alpart took the crew team to a number of university campuses and several fine restaurants. He also brought them to his home, introduced them to his wife and young daughter, and exposed them to a number of business opportunities outside the sport. For Cooper, this meant special culinary training and a job at one of the best restaurants in Chicago.
Alpart not only funded the program, but was the glue that held them together, a good listener who took a special interest in each of them.
After working hard over the summer, in the fall Alpart introduced them to their new strength and conditioning coach, a relentless drill instructor named Marc, who quickly earned their respect. Writes Cooper: "Marc is the best coach that we could ever ask for. When we run, he runs farther. When we do push-ups, he does more. When we have study sessions, he corrects us. When we watch rowing videos, he quizzes us, and when he sees physical results, he puts us on the erg machine and he evaluates us. We call him the Marcantor."
It's the Marcantor who coaches Cooper to his first victory, at the Chicago Indoor Rowing competition, where the activity is not on the water, but on the erg machine. The competition is mostly from all-white high schools in the greater Chicago area. Writes Cooper: "Marc tells me that no one here is in my league. You're stronger than any kid I've seen on the erg machine," says Marc. "Remember, you have a right to be here and a right to win. . . ."
"I sit on the erg machine," writes Cooper, "and Marc is right there next to me to coach me. He is more intense than I am . . . I drive back with all the strength I can gather from my legs." Fatigue inevitably sets in. "My arms are giving out. Marc has to push me through the last couple of minutes yelling 'It's the heart and mind from here." After a couple more minutes of intense rowing, Marc yells, "Stop! Look around; everyone else is still rowing."
Cooper wins and is awarded a gold medal, and afterward is interviewed for a story in "Rowing News."
Cooper worked so hard, that a number of people urged him to slow down and enjoy himself. "People always tell me that I'm young and should enjoy being a teenager, but to me it's only temporary fun. Being a teenager is all about fake friends, being broke and a constant battle for popularity."
That spring the Manley Crew Team faces its biggest rowing event, at a high school in upper Michigan. Due to his strong work ethic, Cooper's teammates now call him "Mini-Marc." About the coming race, he says: "I know, without a shadow of a doubt, it is our time. We've given everything this years for today. It is our moment.
"Basketball, football, and baseball couldn't have done what rowing has done to this group. It has taken nonathletic, nerdy, small, broken, and uncool kids and made them a family. Every time we get into the water, we are adding something to it that rowing has never done before . . . When I look at (my teammates), it's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
The race is a 1,500-meter event with six boats competing. At the start the Manley crew team jump out into an early lead. With 400 meters to go, they have the race won easily. It's at this point that Cooper loses his concentration. It only takes a second, but he turns around to have a look at the other boats and loses his focus. Writes Cooper: "My oar drops in the water a half second too late and it swings toward me as I lose control. The oar flies up and slaps me right below my neck."
In that second, the two closest boats caught and passed them. Cooper grabs his oar and tries to start rowing again, but as he explains, "It's hard to get back in sync again." But he does. Rowing strongly as a team, "We catch the second boat, but I see we are too late–they cross the finish line ahead of us. We finish third.
"I drop my body forward onto my lap and cry . . . I am the leader and I've let everyone down. I took my eye off what was ahead of me and to see what was behind me, and I'm paying for it. Not just me, but my entire team. My actions caused others to fail.
"In this moment, with my face in my lap and my heart in my stomach, I can hear my teammates saying thank you. I look up and the teams that have passed the finish line are giving us head nods and thumbs-up. They are all showing us the upmost respect . . . " Meanwhile, Marc who has been running beside them, stands nearby. "I look over at Marc's face. He doesn't show any signs of disappointment, but I know he is. Any coach would be. The only thing I do see on his face is pride. He's never seen anything like this in all years of rowing.
"We're a group of black kids from the turbulent West Side of Chicago, surrounded by a group of Midwestern white kids all sharing praise and respect in the middle of a lake. We are all honored to be a part of this and rowing has helped us achieve Ken's vision for our lives. He once said win or lose, rowing is the tool you use to fix things. Now I understand that. When I was angry, the erg helped; when I needed peace the water helped, when I needed discipline, the sport helped. Although I feel bad and unworthy of anything right now, I can't help but think a couple of years ago some of us were basically the rejects and outcasts of our communities, but now we are considered the solution. We know who we are."
In the epilogue, Cooper discusses what became of his teammates. Bottom line: they took what they learned from crew racing and made a success of their lives. Says the author: "After high school, I took a year and dedicated my life to full service at AmeriCorps working with young children in my community. I then kicked off my career of being a chef by attending Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago and taking extra classes in Le Cordon Bleu London."
His career in the kitchen of some of the finest restaurants in Chicago, led to becoming the personal chef for movie sets, professional athletes, and private events. After that he started a young chef program teaching public school kids the career path in the field of cooking in hospitality. Rowing was never far from his mind, however, and he soon founded the only New York City public school rowing team at East Side Community School for black and Latino students.
The model and success of the programs made him a highly sought-after motivational speaker and consultant for many rowing programs around the country, as well as in Germany and Spain. Today he lives in Brooklyn, New York with his family.
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