The 1000 Meter Difference

By: Vanessa Lauren

From gangs to guest speaking. That’s the story of one man from the West Side of Chicago. Arshay Cooper is a rower, award-winning author, motivational speaker and activist who’s next stop is UNLV. 

His story starts on the streets of Chicago and unlike the 33 percent of boys he grew up with, it does not end there. According to Chicago CRED Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Chicago is seven times more violent than New York and three times more violent than L.A. So what kept Cooper from becoming a statistic? Rowing.

In 1997 Preston Grandberry, Alvin Ross, Malcolm Hawkins, and Ray Hawkins Jr. became the first African-American high school rowing team at Manley High School. Their captain Arshay Cooper has detailed their experience in his memoir turned documentary A Most Beautiful Thing. 

The Manley crew’s story is one of struggle and overcoming. Being the first African-American row team on the West Side of Chicago was not only physically challenging it was socially and mentally challenging too. The team members all had to deal with judgment from their peers and real-life threats from gangs in their community. 

“It was dangerous being in a gang on the West Side,” said Grandberry “but it was more dangerous not to be in a gang on the West Side.” 

Throughout the documentary the crew shares their stories and struggles from gangs to jail to drugs and beyond their stories are ones full of power and inspiration. Cooper proudly leads the pack as they reunite for one more race 20 years later back in Chicago but this time they have new teammates, the Chicago PD. 

“We have an opportunity to show the younger generation that in order to break the cycle they have to move together as one,” said Cooper “when we rowed together we bonded a lot closer because we had no one cheering us on. We cheered each other on”

It was that bond the Manley crew credits with saving their lives and the lives of their loved ones. It is because of that bond that Cooper has dedicated his life’s work to teaching other young people how to motivate themselves and stay out of trouble. 

After high school, Cooper coached rowing at the Chicago Urban Youth Rowing Club and started several rowing programs for low-income youth across the country. He now speaks at prisons, colleges, professional sports teams, and media appearances including an upcoming appearance at UNLV on November 17th. 

The UNLV athletic department and UNLV libraries have partnered up to start a book club focused on Cooper’s memoir A Most Beautiful Thing. The club joins virtually once a month but Cooper will only be guest speaking on the 17th of this month where he will share more details on his experience growing up and why rowing is so important to him. 

To join the book club visit the UNLV book club website or to watch the documentary directed by Olympic rower Mary Mazzio and narrated and produced by Academy Award winner Common visit Amazon Prime. 

Cooper says he wants students to know they can accomplish something no matter the circumstances. Knowing you can do something that feels good even when you’re surrounded by so much bad, that is the 1000 meter difference. 

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