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Rower Arshay Cooper Returns to NMH

Rower Arshay Cooper Returns to NMH

Athlete, memoirist, youth advocate, and motivational speaker Arshay Cooper returned to campus in April to spend time with the NMH community. As a high school student, Cooper was a member of the nation’s first all-black rowing team, an experience he wrote about in his book, “A Most Beautiful Thing.” 

Rower Arshay cooper holds a microphone

Cooper previously visited NMH on multiple occasions and served as the class of 2021’s Commencement speaker. On this visit, he was joined by fellow rower, two-time Olympian, and 2008 bronze medalist Dan Walsh. 

With a schedule that included a stop in a history class; meetings with team captains, coaches, and athletes; plus time in the water, Cooper and Walsh shared stories about how rowing impacted their lives and advice for personal growth. 

In a morning assembly with 9th- and 10th-graders, both men described origin stories rooted in struggle. Walsh grew up in a home where older siblings were dealing with drug addiction, depression, and anxiety. “Here's the deal: At that age, all that trauma that was surrounding me was making me terrified of the world,” he said.

In high school, Walsh was invited to enroll in a rowing program initiated by his pediatrician. Two years later, he participated in his first U.S. Junior National Camp. The experience was life-changing. “[My doctor] challenged me to show up in my life. What I learned is that I had an opportunity to be courageous,” he said. “The definition of courageous is not the absence of fear but the overcoming of it.” 

Rowers Dan Walsh and Arshay Cooper speak from the stage in Raymond Auditorium

Cooper also focused on the emotional hardships of his youth and the role rowing played in his success. “I lost a lot of friends. I heard gunshots. I had a hard life, and it bothered me because I just didn't know what to do with that. I didn’t have an outlet,” he said. “Long story short, I became the captain of the first all-black high school rowing team in the country in the ’90s. And I finally felt a part of something.”

A routine day in the boathouse, when his coach insisted that he clean up a mess left behind by students from another school, blossomed into a metaphor that guides his life, Cooper said. “I remember jumping over the mess to get my stuff. Coach said, ‘Why did you step over the mess? … In our boathouse, we leave it better than we found it, even if I didn't make the mess.’ …

“Every single day, everybody was stepping over the mess because they didn't feel like it was their responsibility,” Cooper told the students. “That’s when I realized what Coach was saying: If we can leave the classroom, our teams, our friends, our school, our country, our neighborhood, our country better than we found it – even if we didn't make it the best – it's easier for the next generation.”

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