40 pages 1 hour read

Arshay Cooper

A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America's First All-Black High School Rowing Team

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America’s First All-Black High School Rowing Team is a 2020 sports memoir by Arshay Cooper. The book chronicles the formation and first two seasons of the crew team at Manley Career Academy High School on the West Side of Chicago in the late 1990s. Throughout the book, three primary themes emerge: The Role of Education and Personal Growth in Overcoming Adversity, The Importance of Diversity and Representation in Sports, and The Transformative Power of Sports. In 2020, the book was adapted into an award-winning documentary film narrated by the Grammy Award-winning musician Common and directed by former US Olympic rower Mary Mazzio.

Cooper’s memoir was originally published in 2015 under the title Suga Water but was republished by Flatiron Books with its new title in 2020. This study guide reflects the latter edition.


In the fall of 1997, the Chicago Bulls had just won their fifth NBA title, and Cooper’s mother, Linda, had just graduated from a Christian-based drug treatment program. When Cooper attends school one day, he sees a rowing shell on display in his school’s lunchroom and a woman trying to get students to join the new crew team. The rowing program is the brainchild of Ken Alpart, a financial trader and former collegiate rower who founded an organization dedicated to working with kids on Chicago’s West Side. Although Cooper originally had no interest in joining the team, his best friend, Preston, persuades him to come along to the meeting. At the second meeting, the students are introduced to rowing on the erg machines and learn that the team will be going on a trip for spring break.

While Cooper is excited to be part of something, he and many of his teammates do not know how to swim and have an intense fear of the water. At the Lincoln Park Lagoon, the team gets on the water for the first time and immediately has to return to the dock because panic spreads among the rowers. Their second attempt in the rowing shell occurs during the spring break trip to Philadelphia and goes much more smoothly. Back in Chicago, the team begins preparing to compete in the Chicago Sprints, and a reporter for the Chicago Tribune comes to watch them practice and interview them. The race is a disaster for Manley because their timing is still off, but they dominate the post-race erg competition. At this point, the Manley crew team is as strong and powerful as anyone, but it lacks technique.

Over summer break, a nucleus of Cooper, Preston, Alvin, and Malcolm develops on the team as they are the only four taking part in summer rowing. Alpart gets all four of them summer jobs, and they begin to form a strong bond with him and get to know his family. Cooper especially begins to view Alpart as a mentor and father figure who will play a major role in shaping his future. When school starts in the fall, the team races in the St. Louis Regatta and continues to improve by finishing third. Cooper is named captain for the season, but the team takes a hit when Preston gets involved in selling drugs and quits the team, Malcolm’s father forces him to quit the team, and Alvin is injured with a hernia. This leads Cooper to recruit new rowers, who quickly learn the ropes and go with the team to compete at their next event in Iowa.

After winter break, the team is introduced to its new head coach, Marc Mandel, and begins training to compete at the High School Invitational in Grand Rapids, Michigan. With Mandel working them harder than ever, the team improves even more, and Cooper competes at two indoor rowing events where he takes first place in both and finds out that he is the top-ranked rower in the city and ranked 35th nationally in his age group. Just before the team is to leave on another spring break training camp in Philadelphia, Cooper meets a woman who says that she knows his father and is adamant about getting them together. Despite having only been with his father once before when he was young, Cooper agrees to meet him and his family.

In April of 1999, the Manley crew team competes in the High School Invitational in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and impresses spectators by jumping out to an early lead among the six teams in their 1,500-meter race. With 400 meters remaining, disaster strikes as Cooper loses control of his oar, forcing the whole team to recover and allowing two teams to pass them. In his Epilogue, Cooper provides updates as to what has transpired with himself, his teammates, and his coaches since they last rowed together in Grand Rapids and how the sport of rowing and the brotherhood that they developed changed their lives.

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