row2k Features
'Rowing Has to Diversify the Sport of Rowing' - Arshay Cooper and AMBTIF Eye LA2028
November 2, 2023
Ed Hewitt,

Cooper with young athletes at the C2 tent on Saturday at the Charles

Read Pt 1 of our report on the activities of AMBTIF and Arshay Cooper here: 'Why Not Us?' - Arshay Cooper and AMBTIF Go To South Africa.

In the very early days of his outreach efforts, Arshay Cooper spoke consistently about not only encouraging participation of black and POC athletes in the sport of rowing so that they might enjoy the healing and community benefits of the sport - but about then helping those same young people to the highest reaches of the sport.

"There has never been a man of color who has rowed in the Olympics on American soil, and we want to see that in LA in 2028," he told me two weeks ago, echoing his same words from the very early days of his work.

In those early days, such a 'stretch goal' might have seemed unrealistic, but that would have underestimated Cooper's resolve. His unrelenting advocacy and commitment to showing up again and again is showing results. And as American rowers know, plenty of walk-on rowers found themselves on the Olympic starting line in just a few short years, so it might not be so far away - or as Cooper said in Part 1 of this article, Why Not Us?

Craftsbury Leadership Camp

The Craftsbury Leadership Camps, offered with the support of the Craftsbury Outdoor Center and the A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Fund (AMBTIF), is a crucial breeding ground of the effort. Each summer, Cooper and the camps invite promising young athletes to the camp not only to improve their rowing, but to go out help other young rowers of color and from non-traditional rowing communities to get started with, and get better at, rowing.

Athletes with Cooper at the Craftsbury Leadership Camp
Athletes with Cooper at the Craftsbury Leadership Camp

"We do the camp every year, but this year it was a really competitive group from all over the world," Cooper said. "Black kids came from Europe, the Bahamas, South Africa, all over the US. These kids were fast, and that was a special moment to have them train together, and to sharpen each other."

The camps can serve as a carrot for kids to get better on their own, and to be ready when the time comes to up their game.

"The kids at that camp were the same kids who, two years ago when I was invited to speak at the school, I told 'Hey, if you do good this year, you're going to camp next year.' These are kids who have never been out of their town, so it can be a really special experience."

Randolph HS gifts C2 a certificate for their donations of ergs as AMBTIF looks to start programming there
Randolph HS gifts C2 a certificate for their donations of ergs as AMBTIF looks to start programming there

On To the Next Level

Subsequently, many of the best athletes have gone on to places like the California Rowing Club, PennAC, and college programs, and are starting to show, well, speed.

"Conrad Palmer, for example, his 2k was okay, but he spent two months with Mike Teti, and now he is smashing it," Cooper relates.

Palmer won a silver medal at the Canadian Henley this past summer, and is rowing in the Hobart varsity this fall.

"History has taught us that when everyone is included, it gets faster, better, and more competitive," Cooper said. "What is changing is that college coaches, and people like Mike Teti at CRC, and PennAC, and competitive camps, with the support of the NRF, are starting to believe they need to partner with us to make this happen.

"They say that Arshay can't diversify the sport of rowing, rowing has to diversify the sport of rowing."

Coooper presenting medals on Sunday at the Head Of The Charles
Coooper presenting medals on Sunday at the Head Of The Charles

Personal Touch

Cooper's direct, personal involvement with the kids and people who interact with the program are well-known.

"When I visit, it's not just going to a practice to watch, but we go to their schools to help recruit them to the team, sit with them while spending a week helping their city do team-buidling workshops, watch the movie together - and the relationship is built. It's not a one and done. And there are kids who see the movie and seek me out, and I commit to staying in touch with those kids."

Cooper stays in touch with the athletes, coaches, and supporters who have -and those numbers are growing into the thousands.

"I do a lot of things wrong but one thing I do right is that I am in touch with these kids year round," he said. "We are messaging with the kids, and also talking constantly to college coaches about these kids."

But the overall effort leans heavily on Cooper and his core team, and the success of the mission thus far means even the indefatigable Cooper probably needs backup.

(I asked Cooper if he gets any days off on his various travels this year, and the response was predictable: 'Not one tourist day!')

Coooper presenting medals on Sunday at the Head Of The Charles
Coooper presenting medals on Sunday at the Head Of The Charles

That is where the athletes coming out of the camp, as well as those who are now rowing in high school and college, and in clubs and training centers, can offer mentorship of the type that Cooper, David Banks, Aquil Abdullah, and others offered to them.

Help One, Who Helps the Next One - and Keep Going

Cooper's vision encourages all the athletes who have come through the program to become ambassadors for continuing and expanding the effort.

Cooper takes his inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King's regional approach to civil rights efforts.

"There are very talented people who really care about the future of this sport, and it's going to take all of us working on this," he said. "Dr. King found leaders in different cities and regions, and asked them to do what he was doing, but in their region. And they met together every month, and then they would say 'OK, we're going to Selma, and we're all going to be there.' And then Montgomery. With our work, sometimes we would do that, and at other times everyone would lead their DEI efforts in their region. We need young, talented people to get involved in that kind of effort. "

Those people include rowers, but also club leaders, city leaders, and even professional athletes. This fall Cooper is working on programs in Oklahoma City, including the involvement of the OKC Thunder, and is talking to the Dallas Mavericks about getting involved with Dallas AMBTIF partner schools.

"That is the vision behind it, with the idea of starting to get more results at a competitive level," Cooper said. "People are helping with this, and we are getting there.

"For example in Philadelphia, previously we saw a lot of kids rowing in high school, then a smaller number of them in college, then at the national team level a lot fewer again. Now, we definitely see a lot more kids of color than we did four years ago. And we are always looking for kids who need help. We see kids at regattas and ask how it is going, what they are doing in the summer. Aquil (Abdullah) will write me with a row2k photo and say 'Who is this kid?!?'

Athletes at the Craftsbury Leadership Camp
Athletes at the Craftsbury Leadership Camp

I admitted to having seen young rowers of color who had ability, charisma, and were team players, and thinking 'Hey, that kid is the whole package, she could make it,' and then having stopped there.

"That's it! It stops there. So how do we help them develop and send them places in the summer. Or maybe they don't have that passion to row all year, but instead they can go to high schools and recruit kids and help them."

At the Head Of The Charles, Cooper visited local schools on Friday, and then hosted tons of kids at a gathering at the regatta, sending them out to talk to rowers, coaches, and others.

"Everyone, make sure you stop and talk to each other, and to other rowers, see how they are doing, if they need anything," he shouted to the HOCR attendees gathered at the Concept2 tent after a group photo was taken.

Help one, who helps the next one...

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Log in to comment
Richard Bruce
11/08/2023  1:13:55 PM
Don't chase the utopian diversity brass ring. Rowing is an expensive sport with restrictive weather and geographic range. There's a reason why no one in Alaska, New Mexico, or Mississippi is nationally ranked. There is a reason no one from the inter-city of Detroit or Kansas City is nationally ranked. Just like there is a reason why there are no nationally ranked alpine skiers from Florida or Hawaii.

11/09/2023  10:15:32 AM
2 people like this
I thought twice about responding, as I do feel it is a bit of a troll because it doesn't bring much to the table other than 'rowing is too hard for you, don't bother,' or 'if you are not rich and have good weather, don't bother,' but I felt it is worth a try.

As for 'rowing is too hard, don't bother,' this runs counter to almost everything I know about the sport, which is 'rowing is really hard, you definitely should do it.'

If you are saying 'if you're not rich and your weather isn't great, don't even try,' it doesn't really hold up given how many working class kids have come to and excelled in rowing from northern cities; viz the hordes of kids from Buffalo near or at the top of the sport right now as just one example, and there are countless examples. We laud the 2004 gold medal Olympic eight for being a bunch of working class club team state school kids, and it seems like it applies here, if not for 'diversity' but for what happens when you provide access to the sport.

But if that is not a clear enough example, this exact moment in time makes it impossible not to think of the 1936 gold medal Olympic eight Boys in the Boat, who the whole world will learn about come Christmas Day - their whole story is about poor kids with almost no means and not a chance in the world who went to the pinnacle of the sport.

From there, I don't see this simply as a diversity brass ring - we all know rowing can change lives. The most dedicated college alums were often previous non-athletes who walked onto the rowing team, and everything clicked into place at the boathouse - and plenty of those folks became world class rowers, as it is inevitable that when people join a sport, some will have the potential to be world class.

Why not these young rowers?

Wrt alpine skiers from Florida; our sport just needs water and a patch of land, not snow and half a mountainside. There is tons of rowing in inner cities, and in places that don't have perfect weather alike, and by people with limited resources - I was a poor kid from Atlantic City myself, and rowing changed my life.

Many great rowers got their start in boathouses that were not much more than garages, park landscaping machinery hangars, ramshackle sheds, or even just a bunch of outdoor racks.

We walked a quarter mile (I measured it on Google a few years ago) with resin-laden hand-me-down boats, switched off taking off our shoes at the water's edge, and walked the boats into the water in March. The Holy Spirit guys down the road rowed in a flat-roofed cinder block shed with 8 1/2 foot ceilings in front of which they waded into the water every day. After getting into the boats with bright red, wet feet and trying to pull socks on, some got booties at local surf shops - but when those started to leak just gave up on it and warmed our feet by pulling hard. Cleaning the salt off the shells afterwards was another dousing in cold water - and all part of why many people love the sport.

But I digress and am riffing too much- more to the point, Arshay's core idea is about growing the sport by making it accessible to more people, and maybe having a few of them turn into real boat movers - which has happened every time rowing has found a new home somewhere in the US or the world.

In the Part 1 of the coverage of Arshay's efforts, the question was asked 'Why not us?'

And to me it is that simple, and you really answer your own question - why reserve rowing only for rich people in good weather? Anyone can row, and if we believe what we say about our sport, everyone *should* row.

Why wouldn't we support, applaud, or at least benignly ignore someone for bringing their friends, their community, their town, their 'people' into the sport?

Finally, I can't speak for them, but I am pretty sure the people in this article are not in search of a 'diversity utopia;' they know a lot better than that - probably just like you do, and just like I do, because it is way more complicated than that of course.

But big picture, if a person or group want to bring more people to our sport, let's either help them or just stay out of the way - I don't see the value in telling them not to bother.

Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall...

As always, I hope everyone is doing well out there, let's lift each other and our sport up whenever we can.

Peter Paine III
11/12/2023  8:11:57 PM
2 people like this
Well said, Row2K. For me it's simple. The more people pulling on oar, the better.

11/02/2023  6:17:37 PM
2 people like this
This is so needed! I also believe that US Rowing should do more to make selection camps more inclusive and available to all. The price makes it only available to those in the highest tax brackets. Not to mention if you do make worlds, many athletes have to pay their own way. We can do better all around. Kudos to programs like these! I would love to attend any fundraising events coming up!

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