15 June 2020
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch’s third and final piece inspired by current events.
Though I risk falling from a rapidly moving bandwagon, I do not make any apologies for publicising the imminent and very pertinent release of a documentary on a project that brought rowing to a deprived African-American neighbourhood 20 years ago and that has had ongoing positive consequences. It is from filmmaker Mary Mazzio, who already has an HTBS Oscar for her 1999 production A Hero for Daisy (the story of 1986 World Champs Gold Medalist Chris Ernst and other female Yale rowers, whose Title IX protest led to increased athletic opportunities for American women). Mazzio was well qualified to make such a film, she represented the U.S. in the double sculls at the 1992 Olympic Games.
Mazzio’s latest ‘documentary feature’ is titled A Most Beautiful Thing and is due to be released in the U.S. on 10 July (postponed from 27 March). A press release says:
[The film] chronicles the first African American high school rowing team in this country (made up of young men, many of whom were from different neighborhoods and rival gangs from the West Side of Chicago), all coming together to row in the same boat. The film takes a deep dive into the backstories of these young men, examining the issues of trauma and violence. As the team’s captain, Arshay Cooper, reflected, ‘When we were on the water, we were in a place where we could not hear the sound of sirens or bullets, and that allowed us to shape a different vision for ourselves, of who and what we could become. And that was a beautiful thing’. In the wake of the death of a coach, these young men decided to come back together, after 20 years out of the boat, to race once more….
This film must have been completed before the events following the death of George Floyd and possibly before COVID-19. Whether this made A Most Beautiful Thing even more relevant or whether Mazzio thought that a re-edit was necessary, I do not know.
Mazzio’s documentary is based on Arshay Cooper’s award-winning self-published memoir, Suga Water, which will be republished by Flatiron in July 2020 under the title A Most Beautiful Thing.
The Chicago Sun Times of 28 March chronicled the story:
The rowing team lasted three seasons, but the lessons Cooper and his teammates learned on the water shifted the trajectory of their lives. Cooper’s personal experience of healing from his childhood trauma inspired him to try to provide that same comfort to others, so in 2014 he began writing his autobiography. After six months of writing, Cooper self-published his book, which was originally titled ‘Suga Water’. The first thing he did was send it to principals, teachers and coaches, and the response was powerful. Cooper began speaking at schools, and before long, the book wound up in the hands of award-winning documentary filmmaker and former Olympic rower, Mary Mazzio.
The press release says that currently ‘seeking to share his experience with a new generation of young people, Arshay… travels the country putting at-risk students in boats on any puddle of water he can find. His teammates have become entrepreneurs and small business owners’.
It is well worth taking five minutes to view a Discovery Life Channel interview with the articulate and inspiring Cooper currently on YouTube. He gives a fine illustration of the power of sport to improve lives and he gives an indication of what is needed to change access to rowing.
The film’s website gets an extra special nod from HTBS for this section:
NOTE for HISTORY BUFFS: Although this crew (from Manley High School) was the first African-American high school rowing team, the first African-American team was actually a college team which originated in the 1960s and 1970s at Howard University, coached by Potomac Boat Club’s Stu Law. (Other outreach and community efforts to expand the sport of rowing to young people developed in the early 1990s, Mandela Rowing out of Boston being among the earlier programs), but much more needs to be done. In fact, one of Arshay Cooper’s goals is to see a dramatic increase in athletes of color named to the 2028 US Olympic Team.
Finally, the publishers’ description of Cooper’s book tells of the simple thing that persuaded a young Cooper to try ‘crew’:
Arshay’s life is about to take an unexpected turn. One day as he’s walking out of school, he notices a boat in the school lunchroom, and a poster that reads ‘Join the Crew Team’. No one signs up. The next day, he sees the boat again. Only this time, a table is piled high with pizza. Arshay signs up. This decision to join is one that will forever change his life, and those of his…. teammates. As Arshay and his teammates begin to come together to learn how to row–many never having been on water before–the sport takes them from the streets of Chicago, to the hallowed halls of Ivy League boathouses.
Some may say that things such as handing out pizza seems patronizing, but perhaps it is a small example of the sort of different things that need to be done to make the strange and daunting world of rowing seem a little more accessible to those who see it as irrelevant to them.