Rowing Can Be Beautiful

Reading A Most Beautiful Thing is a moving experience. It’s a book about the country’s first All-Black High School rowing team, a group of young men from Manley High School on the West Side of Chicago who made history in the 1990s. It is a first-person account by one of the rowers, Arshay Cooper, and is a rework of his memoir, Suga Water. It is such a powerful story that it was recently made into a movie by the same name. Narrated by Common with some really powerful images, the movie is less about Arshay and more about the team, their families, and the privation and violence in their community. It also anchors an alumni row as a plot point, while the book is more about the young men’s journey. Both are good – and both can be of interest to educators.

Cooper’s personal history, growing up in a violent neighborhood with dueling gangs that threaten his family’s safety, is dramatic and too much a familiar story for men of color in Chicago. Life was dangerous. By chance Cooper came across a pitch at his high school for rowing. There was a rowing boat in his cafeteria and free pizza to entice students to give it a try. From there he and several others from his school learned how to row. They developed skills, showed great dedication, and became more than better rowers: the gained stature and a real sense of possibility. The young men obtained a new and powerful sense of self and accomplishment. As the crew jelled and became more proficient, they traveled, saw see other parts of the city and country, and met many different people. Their work ethic was impressive, on the water and in the many ways that they challenged their situation and constraints to find time to get onto the water. It was for them, in every sense of the word, a team sport experience that transformed them. As a reader or viewer, you root for them. You can sense their maturation, appreciate their dedication, and you very much want them to find success.

Rowing may sound like a strange sport for such a story. It’s usually associated with the Ivy Leagues, white culture and wealth. Take a closer look, though, and it makes sense. Rowing is a team sport that completely depends upon every person in the boat contributing. In fact, you cannot take an eight-person boat out for a practice with only seven rowers. Everyone has to show up, literally and metaphorically. That lateral commitment, simply to getting to the water on a regular basis at some ridiculously early hour (and it’s always a ridiculously early hour) builds trust and respect. Similarly, in a boat there are no superstars. Everyone has to contribute for a boat to go fast. That just is not the case in many other team sports, where one gifted athlete can stand apart from teammates. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, rowing is a sport that rewards hard work and discomfort. The more time and effort a rower puts in, the better the rower becomes. Better athletes will, of course, start from a stronger place – but the underlying equation of work to achieve outcomes remains. It’s a direct relationship that those who row know and appreciate. There is little glamour in working hard in a boat. It is, in fact, humbling sport – and one that provide its participants a tremendous sense of accomplishment and connections that can last a lifetime.

Following high school, Cooper worked at AmeriCorps before cooking school and a career as a chef. He found service, and rowing, pulling him back, though, and now he is a motivational speaker and coach. He has taken an extraordinary journey. Others found work and some experienced continued hardship. There is no “happily ever after” for all of the team. Like real life, difficulties and challenges remain – with or without athletic success. The rowers, whether they stayed in touch or not, held a bond, a shared sense of identity that is bigger and durable.

Some of the reasons that rowing has remained popular among elite institutions are these very factors. It is a sport that elevates the group, not the individual, and teamwork. That means yoking one’s effort in the service of a larger cause. It is a process that builds a great sense of belonging, community and purpose. Those values are very much needed in all communities: wealthy ones and those with scant resources, like the West Side of Chicago. It can be an antidote to all manner of ills. And it’s also not a surprise as to why it is so popular in more moneyed circles. Rowers’ tenacity is a useful trait in all sorts of situations.

A Most Beautiful Thing is a great reminder of the terrific benefit that can come from competitive sports. Amid the scandals and the posturing about money and status, it’s important to remember. Athletics can supplement, round out, and enhance a young person’s emotional, academic and psychological development. The right sport for the right person at the right time can do wonders. It would have been good if this effort was sustained over the years. I would wager if would have made a difference.

Yes, I am a fan of rowing – and very much a fan A Most Beautiful Thing.

David Potash

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