Arshay Cooper knows first-hand how rowing can offer a lifeline to kids in challenging circumstances.
Cooper and his teammates from Chicago’s Manley High School made history in the 1990s as the country’s first all-Black high school rowing team. Their story inspired the 2020 documentary film “A Most Beautiful Thing” produced by rapper-actor Common and retired NBA stars Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade.
The rowing team, which hailed from what Cooper described as “one of the most violent” high schools on Chicago’s west side, found peace, healing and hope on the water. The sport saved his life, Cooper said.
“We never won gold, but we won in many other ways,” he said.
How you can help
The George Pocock Rowing Foundation aims to give more kids the chance to grow through a sport traditionally available only to those in more affluent communities.
The foundation helps accomplish that goal in part through its annual Row to the Future Benefit Breakfast scheduled for April 16. The program will include presentations from the foundation, opportunity to socialize and network virtually, and a coffee demonstration by sponsor Avole Coffee.
Donations will provide scholarships, coaching, equipment and transportation for young rowers. Funds also will support youth programs such as Erg Ed and the A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Initiative.
To bolster those efforts, Make It Better Media Group will match all donations dollar for dollar up to $10,000, meaning your donation will automatically double.
Cooper is one of the featured speakers for the virtual breakfast and will talk about “The Changing Power of Rowing.” Cooper, who was once hesitant to sign up for the high school rowing team, now works with the George Pocock Rowing Foundation.
As the organization’s national inclusion director, Cooper shares his story and love for the sport of rowing with teenagers across the country in the hopes of drawing students of all backgrounds to the sport.
Across the country, 40,000 students from Oakland to Memphis to Los Angeles and more have benefited from the foundation’s work and programs. During the 2019-20 school year, the foundation worked with seven Chicago area schools and served more than 1,400 students, said spokeswoman Nell Aiello.
The foundation hopes to continue to expand opportunities for rowing to students of all backgrounds across the country. “Our goal is to bridge the gap,” Aiello said.
Chicago is one of the cities under evaluation by the foundation this year as it considers where to make best use of its resources. Although there are rowing programs for students in the city, Cooper noted there are no programs dedicated to students on the west or south sides of Chicago.
“Our dream is to make sure that the boathouses of Chicago reflect the diversity of the city,” he said. “Chicago is my home and has the biggest need.”
‘Room on the rowing team’
The George Pocock Rowing Foundation is working to open opportunities to a sport that foundation members recognize is often viewed as “elitist.”
Cooper, himself, noted in a 2020 interview with The Washington Post that when he first saw an Olympic rowing team consisting of all white members, he figured the sport wasn’t for him.
“No one in the sport looked like me, so I wasn’t going to do it at first,” Cooper told The Washington Post last year. “Sports that don’t require a ball, like those on the water or on the mountains, weren’t for us. The conversations among us were like, ‘White sports get you killed.’”
Eventually, rowing coach Ken Alpart persuaded Cooper and others at Manley High School to join the team at a time when nearly half of Cooper’s classmates dropped out of high school and even fewer went on to college.
“It gives young people a different option,” Cooper said of rowing. “In sports, a lot of people don’t make the football or baseball team, but there’s always room on the rowing team.”
Your matching grant contribution can help expose more kids to rowing and could help change the trajectory of someone’s life. Donate now to double that extraordinary impact.
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Alicia Fabbre is a Chicago-area freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Naperville Sun and Daily Southtown. She lives in the suburbs with her husband and their twin teenagers. When she’s not working, she enjoys bike riding or walking the trails at her local forest preserve, cheering on her student athletes and family game nights.