An unlikely lifeboat for urban youth: Rowing helped one man beat the odds; now he’s paying it forward. “Their eyes have no soul, like life has been sucked out of them. They are as thin as drinking straws and speak no words, only noises. I’m petrified every time I tiptoe past them.” That’s how Suga Water author, activist and self-proclaimed messenger of hope Arshay Cooper describes the drug addicts in the West Side of Chicago building where he grew up. “You can be the product of your effort, not of your environment.” His life story, a recent major motion picture, is a testament to the truth of that message. Cooper was raised by a single mother, who overcame drug addiction, in a neighborhood plagued by gang violence and drugs. He was recruited to the rowing team of Chicago’s Manley Career Academy High School in 1997 to try out a predominantly white athletes’ sport. Skeptical at first, he eventually joined the team, a decision that he says transformed his life. Cooper became crew team captain, graduated high school, “In rowing, you move forward by looking in the opposite direction. I learned that it’s ok to look back, as long as you keep pushing forward.” - Arshay Cooper Arshay made sports history when he became the captain of the rowing team at Manley High School in Chicago’s East Garfield Park—the first all-Black high school rowing team in America. Cooper’s experiences competing in an exclusionary and predominantly white sport are recorded in his striking memoir "A Most Beautiful Thing" and the recent documentary executive produced and narrated by Common. Arshay has also started several rowing programs for low-income youth across the country, anywhere a puddle of water exists, so that other young people can experience the profound change that can happen on the water.
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