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Author Arshay Cooper shares how rowing ‘calmed the storms inside me’

May 5, 2022 — NMH welcomed back to campus athlete, author, and youth advocate Arshay Cooper during a daylong visit on April 28. Cooper, a rower, is the author of A Most Beautiful Thing, his memoir about the first all-Black high school rowing team in the nation. Cooper was also the keynote speaker at the NMH Commencement in 2021.

During a series of stops around campus, Cooper shared lessons he learned through rowing that have carried him through his life and advised students on ways they can strive toward improved wellness, personal growth, and good mental health.

During an all-school meeting in Memorial Chapel, Cooper answered students’ questions, then visited with about 30 students in a combined 9th-grade humanities and English class, who read and discussed his book. Cooper also brought in Olympic rowers Aquil Abdullah (2004 Summer Olympics) and Dan Walsh (2008 Summer Olympics) to join him in a conversation with NMH athletes at the Draper Riverhouse, home to the NMH rowing teams.

Rowing changed his life, Cooper told students. Growing up with a single mom on the West Side of Chicago, he joined and later captained the nation’s first all-Black rowing team, at his high school, Manley Career Academy. Cooper discovered that being in a boat on the Chicago River, working in unison with four teammates, brought him a sense of peace that was lacking in other parts of his life. 

He said there is much to learn from the sport of rowing, in which the athletes actually, physically, look backward even as they are working hard to push ahead. “In rowing, you have to pull for each other,” he said. “You can’t do it alone. And you hear your coach say, ‘Sit tall and breathe.’ In rowing, before it’s a competition, it is a sport of meditation. It was the only sport that calmed the storms inside me.”

Cooper’s words resonated with Chris Shu ’25, who tried out rowing for the first time last fall at NMH.“Rowing is a very good sport because it can change a person,” he said. “Rowing may not involve rituals, but the fact that this sport transforms people just as rituals and rites of passage do — as we learned in HUM 1 religious study and philosophy — makes it magnificent.”

Elle Zaidan Jones ’25 wanted to know how Cooper was able to overcome so many obstacles he faced as a young person. “How do you go from there?” she asked. “How do you take the initiative to do things, go places, and to get out of that difficult place?” 

Cooper’s answer: “It’s about three things: wellness, friendships — or community — and mentors. First, you have to be well to do well. Next, you need your friends, you need your team, you need your community. And then, you need your mentors to help guide you.” 

Cooper’s memoir was the basis for the 2020 documentary film of the same title, which was called “the perfect sports movie” by Sports Illustrated. The film tells the story of Cooper’s high school team reuniting after 20 years to train for the Chicago Sprints, one of the largest regattas in the Midwest. It demonstrates how rowing helped Cooper develop not only discipline and determination but also a sense of community. As he told NMH students: “Leave the boathouse better than you found it, even if you didn’t make the mess. How do you leave your school, your community, your classroom, your city better than you found it? How do you leave the world better than you found it?” 

See photos of Cooper’s visit.