Jake McCandless ’51 PVC Speaker Series Highlights: Arshay Cooper

The Princeton Varsity Club welcomed rowing trailblazer, Arshay Cooper to campus on October 8th for the Jake McCandless ’51 PVC Speaker Series. The featured guest told his inspirational story of growing up on the west side of Chicago and overcoming obstacles while rowing on the country’s first all-black crew team.

Cooper shared lessons that he learned on the water as he discovered opportunities outside of the gang violence that consumed his home and his high school. “I learned to not step over the mess, and to leave the boathouse better than I found it,” Cooper said while speaking of the discipline instilled in him by one of his coaches. The mess he spoke of was his teammates he noted, as he told stories of growing into his role as a team captain. He encouraged audience members to stop ignoring the struggles of those around them, and reach out to lend a helping hand when they see someone in need.

Cooper also spoke to his mission of paying it forward and bringing the sport of rowing in underserved communities. “Talent was everywhere, but access and opportunity was not,” he said speaking of his own community that he grew up in. As he shared the powerful transformation that rowing had on his own life, he introduced the audience to the A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Fund that he founded two years ago. Cooper’s foundation has partnered with countless organization’s, including the Princeton University Rowing Association, to introduce rowing to more than 3,000 young people across the globe. As a part of his presentation, Cooper talked about the impact of programs like Brick City Rowing (Newark) and Stem to Stern (Trenton) who were both in attendance. He praised the work Princeton rowing is doing to grow the sport in these communities and inspired the audience to keep bettering the world around them.

Click here to view a full photo gallery from the event.

The Jake McCandless ’51 PVC Speaker Series was endowed in the name of J.L. “Jake” McCandless ’51, who coached Princeton to the 1969 Ivy League football championship during the Tigers’ centennial year of football. Since its inception, the Series has featured a variety of speakers including Professors, Olympians, Civil Rights Activists, Sports Professionals and Team Owners, and more. Click here for a feature on past McCandless series speakers.


Arshay Cooper is a Rower, Bestselling and Award-winning Author, a 2x Golden Oar recipient for his contributions to the sport of rowing, a motivational speaker, activist, and the protagonist of the film, A Most Beautiful Thing. Arshay grew up on the West Side of Chicago in a community surrounded by gangs and drugs. In 1997 he joined (and later became captain of) the country’s first All-Black high school rowing team at Manley High School, an experience that changed his life. He then dedicated two years of his life to AmeriCorps, focusing on DEI, and soon after that attended Le Cordon Bleu, becoming a personal chef for World Wrestling Entertainment, Warner Brothers film sets, and professional athletes. After years as an entrepreneur in the food service industry, Arshay returned to his true passion: working with young people. He founded the NY East Side Rowing Club and worked as the national youth program guidance counselor for Victory Outreach International. Arshay also helped start several rowing programs for low-income youth across the country, anywhere a puddle of water exists, so that other young people can experience the profound change that can happen on the water. Arshay is the founder of the National Award-Winning Non-Profit, The A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Fund, which introduces thousands of under-resourced youth to the sport of rowing. Arshay’s mission has sparked the MLK Day of Service ”DAY ON” for collegiate and high school sports teams across the country and community rowing events between local police and community members.

Arshay’s message has spread all across the world, speaking for the members of Congress, the NBA and WNBA, the NAACP, the Obama Foundation, the Congressional Black Caucus, and professional sports teams (including the Oakland A’s, the Atlanta Hawks, the Miami Dolphins,  the Atlanta Falcons, and the Chicago Bulls). The British, New Zealand, Australian, German, Dutch, Italian, French, Egyptian, Turkish, Canadian, and other Olympic teams are supporting Arshay and the film profoundly, including creating new charitable organizations and initiatives with underserved communities. Universities and athletic directors across the United States (from Morehouse and other HBCU institutions to the University of Washington to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) are all hosting events with Arshay. Arshay has spoken at UPS, Bank of America, Target, JP Morgan, Delta Airlines, Starbucks, Microsoft, and many other companies hosting conversations around the film, digging into access and opportunity, and the importance of bringing people together.

The book was nominated for an NAACP Image Award and won the 2020 Nautilus Award. The film has won the 2021 Gracie Award, was nominated by the NAACP for an Image Award, was nominated by the Critics’ Choice Association for Best Sports Documentary, was nominated by the International Press Academy for Best Documentary and was named one of the best films of 2020 by Esquire. A MOST BEAUTIFUL THING (executive produced by Academy-Award and Grammy winner, Common, NBA stars Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade; and directed by Olympian Mary Mazzio) chronicles the first African American high school rowing team in the country, made up of young men, many of whom were in rival gangs from the West Side of Chicago, all coming together to row in the same boat. It is an amazing story based on the memoir by Arshay Cooper. The film is currently streaming on Peacock and Amazon Prime, and a scripted series is now being developed with Amazon Studios. Arshay and his work have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, LA Times, Today Show, NBC Nightly News, BBC, Men’s Health, Sports Illustrated, Hollywood Reporter, Chicago Tribune, BET, NPR, and many others.