CHICAGO (CBS) — When you think of the sport of rowing, perhaps affluent athletes and the Ivy League come to mind.
But two decades ago, rowing found an unlikely home in one Chicago community.
CBS 2’s Jim Williams reports it’s now the subject of an inspirational book and film.
The story begins with a teenage boy’s walk into his high school’s lunchroom.
“And I see this boat. A beautiful white boat. I stopped and stared,” said Arshay Cooper.
Then, an invitation.
“This little lady came and tapped my shoulders and said ‘hey, would you like to be a part of the crew team?'”
As in thin boats and paddles. It was an absurd proposal, thought Arshay Cooper and his classmates at Manley High School on Chicago’s West Side.
“You’ll never get no Black guys on the water like that,” said Terry Meeks.
But with the promise of free pizza and travel, they became the first all-Black high school rowing team in the country. It’s all captured in Arshay’s memoir “A Most Beautiful Thing” and a documentary by the same name.
In a school with 10 different gangs, the new teammates had to put aside their differences and work together. It was not easy. It was an extension of the daily trauma they lived with in a violent neighborhood.
Arshay and his mother Linda Medley described her drug addiction.
“Junkie at the 14. And then it was crack cocaine,” she said.
“I remember Christmas gifts being stolen. She was screaming and yelling for a fix,” Arshay said.
But through the sport, the young men are introduced to a whole new world.
“For the first time seeing downtown as a kid. I’m 15 years old and never been downtown,” Arshay said.
They learn entrepreneurial skills and the value of teamwork. It is, as the film’s narrator, Chicago’s own Common says “a symbol for what can be possible.”
“It shows that talent is equally distributed, but as access and opportunity that is not,” Arshay said. “And when we can put our gifts and talents and resources together, we bring to hope to communities that have been waiting for it for so long.”
You can see “A Most Beautiful Thing” on Xfinity OnDemand. The documentary is already getting rave reviews.