Olympian David Banks with the Manley Crew on location in Oakland. © 2019 Richard Schultz. Courtesy 50 Eggs Films
A large number of rowing folks supported and participated in the creation of the new film A Most Beautiful Thing, which, after a series of postponed theater openings this spring, will debut online on July 31. We spoke to several rowing Olympians who were involved to hear their impressions of the film and their time on set.
On the book A Most Beautiful Thing:
"Arshay Cooper invites us to share his life experiences and how his time in the sport of rowing made a lasting impact. As a rower, I know that those who stay with the sport are leaders who learn how to follow. Mr. Cooper is a magnificent example of that concept. A Beautiful Thing is about life and the immense challenges it brings. Please read this book. It is both timely and timeless."
On the film:
"The movie, A Beautiful Thing is so much more than beautiful. It provides an epic view of how Arshay Cooper, a black skinned teenager accepted the sport rowing offered by a white skinned man. As a black skinned woman, I was an adult when I chose rowing. I believe that rowing chose Mr. Cooper who continues to share the wealth of his experiences with the next generations. Rowers are leaders who learn to follow. We all need to follow this man and his story which is both timely and timeless. This film will stay with you and brings hope in a time when finding hope is challenging. "
On meeting with the girls in the film:
"In the discussions with the girls who came to the boathouse that day, I was struck with the fear they vocalized about being in a strange sport. None of their family members or friends knew or appreciated what they were doing. At their age, fitting in and being perceived as “cool” seems to be the most important goal in life. Taking so much time to arrive at a boathouse where there were few if any others that looked like them was a continuing risk. And yet, they were there.
"My goal was to appreciate their success in choosing a different path and to let them know that this act of courage would teach them that anything is possible. Each life is unique and in the sport of rowing everyone can contribute to the success of the boat."
On the Manley team:
"They were clearly devoted to getting back to their successful days in their boat. Reunion is a wonderful experience and even more so when their young lives were so challenged by survival. Having the top US men’s coach added to their determination. I knew that Teti had a bit of a hard scrabble life and he had the ability to understand the urgency and be confident in reaching their goal. What I saw was A Beautiful Thing as the efforts of all converged."
Olympian Anita DeFrantz on location in Oakland. © 2019 Richard Schultz. Courtesy 50 Eggs Films
"I wasn't prepared for the amount of trauma carried by these young men and their families as a result of growing up in an under resourced community. I mean I knew there was trauma, but knowing someone that had been killed by the age of 10 or 12! That broke my heart. I was also surprised at the far-reaching effect that owing for such a short amount of time, had on their lives and their friendships. I mean I knew it was possible, but to see it on screen made it very much real! I jumped on the bandwagon, because I believe that we need to give people of under resourced communities, black and brown people in particular a way to deal with that trauma, a place where even if it's just a few hours a week they can escape from hunger, danger, and feel safe.
"There is some serious trauma left behind by growing up in an under-resourced community. Living in a constant state of not having enough, can be overwhelming, combine that with systems that originated in the oppression of black people, and attitudes of superiority, you wind up with kids that always feel less than. I can't solve all of the race problems in the United States through rowing, but maybe I can help a few kids feel like they are enough, and maybe they can solve the problem.
"This has to be grassroots; people have to walk into boathouses and feel uncomfortable when there is a lack of diversity, rather than think this is the way it's supposed to be. I think that this movie can help people see that they don't need to be anointed to make change, they just have to have the desire and perseverance, and even if their success is small, they will be part of the legacy that moves us forward."
Alvin Ross, Arshay Cooper, Olympian Aquil Abdullah, and Ray 'Pookie' Hawkins in Washington DC. © 2020 Kristoffer Tripplaar. Courtesy 50 Eggs Films
Kay Mickel (Aquil's mom)
"What surprised me most about the film was the deep connection that Arshay and the team made in 6-9 months. These young men became family. Their love for each other was palpable. The trauma that they experienced is unmeasurable.
"I viewed their trauma through the eyes of a mother and nurse. My heart ached with each beat as these young men viewed poverty, death, abuse and violence. The film took me back to my first pediatric patient, an infant whose father left her against a radiator. She suffered third degree burns of her fingers which were amputated. The film took be back to all of the unnamed black and brown kids who death walked away with. The film also took me back to all of the love, joy and strength that lives in our community that supports and raises us UP.
"Arshay and his friends lived because folks cared and showed them that they could make a difference. The film also showed us that we can make a difference. Most of all these young men did not give up. They did not walk away and turn their backs on their family, friends and community. The film made me ask myself, 'Kay, what have you done lately to make a difference? Get busy girl.' And I have!
"For me, that is the strength of the film. It makes us think and take action."
"It was great for me personally to really get to know the guys and to really understand what the whole process meant to them. I had known Arshay for a couple of years and met some of the guys before as well, but it was the first time I really got to know them and talk to them.
"I remember when they first got back together back in early February of 2019 and you could see the excitement and anticipation of finally getting back in the boat. I remember the guys getting on the ergs and warming up, and the determination as well to really make this happen. I remember talking to Malcolm about some of the recent things in his life, and he talked about his son and what this meant for his son to see him out there, doing this, and the hope he had for him.
"And I was surprised how well they did that first day. I mean we're talking 20 years after being in a boat, but they picked it up right where they left off. There maybe was some initial anxiousness and anticipation but it slowly wore away and they got down to the business of rowing and doing all the things you do when you get in a boat and try to make it go as fast as possible. They put in good strokes on the water, and when spinning the boat everyone was talking and figuring things out like rowers do. It was just natural for them, and you could see it all coming back and all coming together.
"One of the moments that really struck me was in Chicago right after they won their race that didn't really make it into the film. There was a big tent for all of the family and friends at the start line. The boats launch from the finish line, and I was at the finish for the race.
"They win their race and everyone is excited, and we all begin walking back up. At this point the guys last saw everyone at the start line of their race, and all of the excitement and talk was within the boat and among the coaches, as it always is after you race.
"We were walking up the course after the race, and the moment the family and friends tent, which was packed at this point, sees the guys, a huge cheer erupted as we got closer. Family came running and everyone was hugging and laughing. It was a real powerful moment.
"I was just so happy for the guys that they were able to experience that feeling, that joy; it was special. In hearing their stories and hearing of the heartaches in the sport (crashing at that very race) and listening to all of their journeys to this point, they had this special moment together.
"It's something I think every competitor, in sports or in life, dreams about when you take on something challenging and meaningful. To have that moment of pure joy that you can share with your family and friends; there are no words that can describe that. For these guys to have that moment, 20 years after they began their journey (and after months of training and preparation), was just amazing to watch and to be a part of in some small way."
Two-time Olympian David Banks handing out medals at the Chicago Sprints to Alvin Ross. © 2019 Andy Anderson. Courtesy of 50 EGGS FILMS.
When making the film, director Mary Mazzio came across some old printed material that included the names of supporters, and found Teti's name on the list of donors. Teti recalled that a rowing person, possibly Mike O'Gorman, told him about it, and he felt it was a good cause so did a recurring donation, but he was not directly involved. Decades later, he was asked to join the guys on set as their coach.
"I really got a sense of what they went through when I went to Chicago; that was eye opening for me," Teti said. "Before we went, I told Arshay that I was a big fan of The Chi, and then The Last Dance, but I didn't really know Chicago. When we got there, you got a real grasp of how difficult it was for them to just to make it happen. That made everything really clear for me. What they did is pretty amazing.
"The other thing that really stood out to me was how upbeat and positive those guys," he continued. "Like, all the time. I can only imagine what it was like growing up there and the world falling down around you. But standing in Chicago, getting to meet their moms, getting to see them in their element, it was inspirational.
"When I was in the film, I was very conscious about what I was saying; you're just aware of every word. and when we were filming in Oakland, there was all the stuff that goes on in a film; there is a lot of sitting around, and figuring out camera angles; and then we were out on a launch with all these people and equipment, and I was really nervous about it.
"But the guys were just lighthearted all the time, ribbing each other, and just so easygoing. The movie is serious, too, and I think you see what they really felt. None of their comments were fake."
"So, you think that if these guys can make it, if they're able to see it through, it makes you reflect on how lucky you are, and how we could create opportunities. Hopefully that's what the movie does. It's a great story, and hopefully it it's going to create opportunities for people like them to get involved in our sport."
The Manley Crew with Olympian David Banks and Olympic Coach Mike Teti on location in Oakland. © 2019 Richard Schultz. Courtesy 50 Eggs Films
Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss
"Rowing is a magical sport that has the power to change lives. Few stories capture this as well as the Manley High School rowing team from the West Side of Chicago - where rowing didn't just change lives, but saved them. We were moved by this story and felt that it was important to help bring it to as many people as possible."
Cameron adds, "I'm always amazed by the lasting impact of rowing. 30 years later, the Manley crew team is still a team. I've met people who rowed for a semester in high school and they are still glowing about it decades later. Today, I lead Gemini, a cryptocurrency startup of 300 professionals, and there is not a day that goes by where I don't call upon some lesson I learned years ago at the boathouse. This sport stays with you forever."
On set, Gilder had commented that the reprieve from the rest of life that being on the river offered, something that Arshay mentions frequently, was something everyone can experience, as she had when she started rowing.
"Watching our men's US Olympic team coach treat the crew with the same respect and appreciation for their goal as he does his national team athletes reminded me of the universally shared experience of being in a boat. No matter who’s in the boat, the opportunities for self-discovery, learning, joy, excitement, pleasure, and satisfaction are the same. Watching Mike from his comfortable and familiar position in the launch, bring his megaphone to his mouth and offer up a mix of instruction and technical correction, on a beautiful spring day on a quiet stretch of river… the question of why our sport is so homogeneous is one that can no longer be left unanswered or unaddressed."