Rowing changed kids' lives on Chicago's West Side decades ago, now the program's coming to Oakland

Documentary highlights the role rowing played in changing the lives of inner city kids in Chicago.

Lyanne Melendez Image
Tuesday, August 31, 2021
Rowing program for kids led by Olympic coach coming to Oakland
Decades ago, a group of kids in Chicago, some gang members, took up rowing -- now 20 years, a documentary and a book deal later, they're hoping to help other kids in inner cities, including Oakland.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Twenty years ago, a group of kids, some of them gang members from the West Side of Chicago, did something that would forever change their lives. They took up the sport of rowing. A book deal and a documentary later followed and now they are giving other inner city kids the same opportunity given to them.

As narrated in the film, "A Most Beautiful Thing," the West Side of Chicago in the late 1990s was plagued by gun violence and crime.

"It was one of those neighborhoods where you hear gunshots when you sleep," explained Arshay Cooper who wrote a book about his experience as an unlikely rower. He told us instead of picking colleges, many young men like him were wondering what gang to join. But that was about to change.

"I walked into the lunchroom one day and there was this boat and this lady walked up to me and said hey, would you like to join the crew team. I said, crew?" added Cooper.

The documentary talks about their skepticism.

"You're going to take a group of West Side kids to the lake. Nah, that's not going to work," one of the former rowing team members recalled.

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"I've seen all these guys from different gangs and these guys were sons of drug addicts, sons of drug dealers, sons of prisoners and I said this is going to be interesting," expressed Cooper who attended Manley Career Academy High School.

"There was something about the water that gave us peace and we all needed that," another team member added.

All of the team members eventually became successful entrepreneurs, their stories told over and over again on the West Side.

Right after the book came out, just as there was talk of making a movie of their lives, the team decided it was time to get back to rowing 20 years later. There was only one guy who could get them into shape

"I have my little megaphone here." That somebody was none other than Mike Teti, the U.S. Olympic rowing coach.

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"So they called me and I said sure you know and next thing I know they were out here in Oakland," explained Teti.

A partnership was formed. Today the team and coach Teti, are helping to train kids from five inner city neighborhoods, including one in Oakland, starting in October.

"We have inner city kids that don't have the means or wouldn't have the means to participate in our sport so we're going to provide that," added Coach Teti.

"We want our sport to reflect the diversity in this country, because we believe this sport can change lives," expressed Cooper.