Member of first all-black U.S. rowing team points way to diversity success
Travel is the first love shared by the Piegza family, headed by our founders Edward and Susan, who took each of their two boys on their first international flights at 11 months old. But as the boys entered high school, rowing quickly became all-consuming so that the family even combines rowing into their travel plans.
Jack, now 23, captained the Cornell University team and considers his fondest memories at school to be time spent with his teammates. Matthew, 21, is now a rising senior at University of Pennsylvania, where he is coached by two Olympic gold medalists who have become his closest mentors. The family has seen firsthand the significant benefits that rowing provides in kids’ lives. And yet, according to U.S. Rowing, in 2019, only 1.3% of its approximately 75,000 members (including high school and college athletes) reported that they were black or African-American.
Enter Arshay Cooper, who was a member of the first all-black high school rowing program in the U.S. and who has written a memoir that is a sort of modern-day version of ‘Boys in the Boat’. The book, titled ‘A Most Beautiful Thing’, is an inspiring memoir of his decision to choose rowing against the backdrop of violent 90’s inner city Chicago, the mentors that he meets in his coaches, and the work ethic that he and teammates continue to draw from successfully even today.
(Click here to get your copy of the book.)
The book goes on sale June 30 and is being followed by a movie that makes its debut nationally in July. Filmed before the protests spurred by the May 25 killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, they follow the journey of Arshay’s teammates, some of whom began as rival gang members and ended up as a closely-knit group. It also captures his high school, Manley Crew, reuniting for a race 20 years later and inviting the Chicago Police Department to row with them on their team.
As the country and the sport look for ways to be more inclusive, Edward sat down recently to talk rowing, fatherhood, diversity and food with Arshay. What follows is an edited version of their sit-down talk.
Edward: ‘A Most Beautiful Thing’ chronicles your experiences as a high schooler in a particularly violent area of the West Side of Chicago, where incentives to join gangs are real, the dropout rate is astronomical, and only about 10% of the senior class goes off to college. In this environment, you made the very unusual and socially risky choice to try rowing, ultimately becoming a part of America’s first all-black high school rowing team. Can you describe what it was like growing up in your neighborhood, and what was it that drew you to the team and convinced you to stay on, given the risks?
Arshay: Growing up on the West Side was scary most of the time. There were fistfights and shootings almost daily. The walk to the store sometimes included stepping over pools of blood, being chased by gang members you’d never seen before, running from the sound of gunshots, being asked to be a part of gangs, or work selling drugs. There was a different gang every few blocks, and the big question was not what college you were going to attend but what gang you would join. It was easier to join a gang than not to join a gang. They offered protection and they were everywhere. It was like hip hop… it was popular and the thing to do. When rowing came to Manley High School, it was so foreign that it caught my attention. I tried originally for the free pizza but met a group of coaches that was inspiring and full of hope. Their message about the sport was that you would travel throughout the year, practice outside the community, build a brotherhood, meet new people, learn to swim, have extra academic support, and compete. I think that spoke to all the young people who never made a sports team, who had never traveled, who were failing classes, and who had no friends. That was 100% me. It seemed safe, and that was enough to keep me interested.
Edward: In addition to describing the historical gravity of being a part of the first US all-black high school rowing team, it also explores the interpersonal challenges among your fellow teammates. Some of them were rival gang members, some of them had parents who disapproved of the decision to join the team due to the coaches being white. Given these challenges, how do you think everyone managed to get along and persevere in pursuit of a common goal?
Arshay: Rowing is not a combat sport and has no room for conflict. You are just out there with classmates pulling together as one. You’re not talking, the water is calm, and every stroke is pure meditation. You don’t hear the usual police sirens or gunshots, and there is no one to impress, so you are just locked into the moment. Nothing else matters. Not the clothes you wear, the neighborhood where you live, or who’s the most popular. When we went to the boathouse or a race regatta, everyone was white; competitors, refs, volunteers, coaches, and then there was our team. So that helped us to bond, knowing that it’s just us, and we are the only ones we have out there and that we must pull together.
Edward: As the first black high school rowing team, you and your teammates thought you were going to change the sport, like Jackie Robinson changed baseball… but you say the sport changed you instead. Despite the adversity you faced as a team, how did the sport change your futures?
Arshay: We weren’t even thinking we would get along with people who didn’t look like us, because we didn’t even get along with each other at first. But the opportunity to share the boathouse with others, compete, and do college visits helped us to step out of our comfort zones and meet others. Rowing helped us to learn to trust and to take chances, which has carried on with us to this day. We got over the fear of water. Our rowing program also had a youth entrepreneurship component to it. Because of that program, my boatmates all have their own business.
(Join Arshay Cooper live for a conversation and virtual book signing at 8pm EDT / 5pm PDT June 30th on YouTube here.)
Edward: Showing up at your first high school races, you describe how conspicuous you felt as an all-black team, being gawked at by teams of almost exclusively white rowers. To what extent do you think that experience is a microcosm for anyone attempting to break into a field, sport, or culture in which their demographic is different from the majority of its constituents?
Arshay: Most of the discrimination happened in the community where the boathouse was; the grocery store, the parking lot, restaurants, or just walking to the boathouse. People didn’t understand why we were there. We didn’t dress like rowers and didn’t wear uniforms until moments before race time. We experienced police stopping us, people staring, sarcastic jokes, and not being allowed in restaurants. But those things didn’t move us. When you have a mission, your vision cannot be blocked. In hindsight it’s like history had its eyes on us. We remained focused. Just like we were prepared for race days, we were prepared for race issues.
Edward: Looking back on this experience after more than 20 years, what do you wish the gawking crowds would have known about you and your teammates?
Arshay: That even with fewer resources, we put in the same number of hours of practice, had the same calluses on our hands, and suffered injured backs just like any other rower.
Edward: A big theme in your memoir is living up to your potential, despite the adversity you and your teammates faced. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, calls your memoir “a testament to the resilience and beauty of the human spirit,” while Ron Stallworth, the author of ‘Black Klansman’, calls it “a triumphant tale of overcoming odds.” What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome in order to achieve your dreams, and how did you accomplish that?
Arshay: When there is a mass shooting nowadays, right away, schools bring in trauma counselors. It was typical for us to experience shootings and losses, and yet, there were no experts. The biggest challenges were getting past the trauma of growing up in a violent and impoverished community, and then dealing with racism. Rowing gave us mentors and provided us a form of therapy to face self-doubt and to conquer our fears.
Edward: ‘A Most Beautiful Thing’ is now a documentary by filmmaker Mary Mazzio, narrated by Common, and produced by Grant Hill, Dwayne Wade, and 9th Wonder. The documentary is much more focused on the present lives of the rowing team, while your memoir focuses on the team’s origins and your life in high school on the West Side. Can you talk more about the documentary and what it was like getting back in the boat with your old teammates?
Arshay: Twenty years after graduating high school, we were reunited after the passing of one of our coaches. The whole team met at one teammate’s barbershop to reflect on our experiences of living on the West Side in the 90’s and then joining the first all-black high school rowing team. We noticed that some of the same obstacles in the community still exist. So, we thought if rowing can bring us together, then maybe it can unite our communities. We decided to do a reunion race to spread hope by inviting young people from the West Side, Manley alums, family members, cops, and the rowing community. I believe this documentary will bring hope to the world and can contribute to diversity in the sport of rowing.
Edward: Can you tell us a bit about your life after high school and your efforts to start rowing programs for low-income youths across the country?
Arshay: After high school, I spent two years fulltime with Americorps. Then I attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. It gave me an incredible opportunity to see the world as a young chef. First, I worked at the critically acclaimed restaurant Blackbird, and eventually as a personal chef on movie sets, and for professional athletes and affluent families. I then began reflecting on what’s next for me and started a young chef program teaching public school kids the career path in the field of cooking in hospitality. The program consisted of learning different cuisines, cooking techniques, nutrition, kitchen safety, proper food handling, knife skills, food meditation, and hospitality. While working with these young chefs, a reoccurring question arose: how do I become successful in a community where very few dreams survive? This question sparked my passion to write about overcoming my childhood hardship.
Edward: You graduated from cooking school in 2004 and took classes at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago and London. Bryan Volpenheim, who won gold in 2004 and bronze in 2008 for the U.S. Olympic team, coaches my son, Matthew, at the University of Pennsylvania. Bryan is a trained chef too. Are there any similarities in being a chef and being a rower?
Arshay: Yes, rowing and being a chef requires practice, teamwork, long hours, patience, and facing up to who you are.
Edward: My son’s coach at Cornell, Chris Kerber, often referred to ‘controlling the controllables’. Can you speak to specific values or skills that you and your teammates learned from rowing that you apply and that you teach your rowers?
Arshay: Rowing taught that rather than trying to do the work of eight people, it’s better to find eight people to do the work together and I’ll get there much faster. 90% of my old boatmates are entrepreneurs and we apply this to our work teams even to this day.
Edward: Penn Rower, Kenneth Alpert (class of 1988), started the non-profit Urban Options that eventually funded the inner-city rowing program that created your high school rowing team, Manley Crew. My boys are friends with the former captain of the University of Wisconsin men’s team, who has partnered with ‘STEM to Stern’ to increase minority participation in rowing. Are there other programs that are doing this sort of work to introduce rowing to minority communities?
Arshay: Yes, there are many doing great work, including Row New York, Chicago Training Center, Reach High Baltimore, Philadelphia City Rowing, and Row Boston to name a few.
Edward: You’ve said that ‘rowing makes me feel the same way that I feel when I’m in church’. Can you elaborate on that for us?
Arshay: While other sports like football and basketball are based around conflict, they didn’t work for me. Rowing calmed the storm in me. It made me feel at peace like church. The water was healing.
Edward: You have a baby daughter, Sasha Munroe, who was born in October 2019. Do you aspire for her to row in high school and college?
Arshay: Yes, she will row at Penn, I just love the culture there!
Arshay Cooper grew up in the all-black West Side of Chicago in the 1990’s, and has been awarded the Buoy Award for service in the sport of rowing in New York City and the U.S. Rowing Golden Oar Award for achieving measurable success in expanding diversity opportunities in the sport of rowing.
Now 38, Arshay has founded the only New York City public school rowing team for black and Latino students (at East Side High School in Manhattan). A highly sought-after motivational speaker, his audiences have included corporations, universities, churches, juvenile centers, youth rallies, stop the violence marches, recovery homes, and over 200 charter and public schools. He now sits on the U.S. Rowing strategic planning committee for diversity and inclusion, while working at Row New York, the largest and most diverse rowing program in the country.
While working closely with head coaches at universities to diversify the sport and prepare non-traditional rowers for the next few Olympics, he is also a consultant for rowing programs around the country. He has worked alongside coaches to help start rowing programs in Stockton and Oakland, CA; Minneapolis, MN; Rochester and New York, NY; Seattle, WA; Baltimore, MD; Dallas, TX; Chicago, IL and others. His athletes of color have gone on to row internationally in Germany, Spain and other countries, and at universities that include Drexel, Williams, Stanford and others. Follow Arshay @arshaycoopeer