Quick note: This UTH piece is different than the others and quite a bit longer. The middle section (starting with "Melissa was born...") is the traditional Underneath the Hoodie form that Margie created, so feel free to skip there. Either way, know the beginning is a bit weird and won’t be what you’re expecting. Thanks for reading! —Kate R.
Underneath The Hoodie: Melissa L.
By Kate Reece
Date of birth: December 5th
Born and raised: Waterbury and Bristol, CT
Place of higher learning: Eastern Connecticut State University and Hunter College
First shot: Once won an honorable mention ribbon for showing her aunt's pygmy goat at a county fair
Step into this church. Immediately, your gaze rises to the vaulted ceiling, which descends into a collection of simple stained glass windows. The architecture is basic, but the placement of every angle, every window is intentional. The colored glass holds and refracts the light unobtrusively, casting a spectrum of muted colors inside an otherwise darkened space. Take a seat. The wood of the pews is slightly chipped; there are grooves where fingers gripped, rubbed away at the varnish, the result of individuals lost in thought in a way that is supported by mechanized movement of one’s extremities. Feel the air, the stillness. Even in the absence of belief that something supernatural or holy might occupy this air, you can still feel the sacred weight of tradition that is honored here, the weight of hours upon hours of quietness, interior examination, and solitude.
But wait—close your eyes. Listen as the walls of this church gently start to crumble, fall away. Feel fresh, restless air start to swirl around you as the ceiling lifts off and dissolves into perfect blue sky. Now, you're standing in an open field. There is flat expanse for miles around you. The breeze moves lightly between tall yellow grass—millions of thin blades accommodating one another, rubbing and moving, creating a low and gentle swishing sound that makes the silence a thing you can actually hear. The horizon is so empty that you ache to know what's beyond it, what lies at the end of the proverbial rainbow. But for now, your palms are flat and open, lungs clear, skin warmed by a gleaming sun. Breathe. And laugh. It's enough to be this alive.
Now you know what it felt like to be offered a glimpse into Melissa’s soul—that glimpse seen through her respectful, dead-on stare, with her warm denim-blue eyes and open face. On the afternoon of MLKJ Day, I met her at the gym after she had taught a morning of classes and finished a workout with Arturo. He was still doing something awful involving thrusters and running, and she hollered encouragement as he huffed around the block in a weighted vest before she slipped into her ’02 Dodge Neon. "Working out by yourself sucks," she said simply, turning the key in the ignition.
After I wrestled her (not really, as I surely would have lost) into Le Pain Quotidian on 5th Avenue, it was clear that while she was trying to have a good attitude and be polite, she still would rather have been anywhere than sitting across the table from me. I should have just told her that I didn’t think she’d be able to do it because then, for sure, she would have told me every secret she has tucked away in the recesses of her big, thoughtful brain. (If you want to get her to do something, tell her she can’t.)
It seems important to point out, too, that we’re far from being strangers and I’d already witnessed both her fierce and fiercely fun sides—the sides that tend to be the final reveal after you’ve known her for a while. We joined forces on the Fighting Tacos soccer team last summer and fall (her being the force, my being mostly a hindrance to winning). After one of our games at Brooklyn Bridge Park, framed by the tall, bright lights of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, a guy was fooling around on the field and accidentally kicked a ball straight into her face. A bunch of us from the gym were standing by the bleachers where she was seated and everything sort of just went quiet. Our open mouths and eyes widened as fury erupted from this small, well-mannered woman. I won’t repeat what she said to the guy, but as Fox recalls, “I thought she was about to rush a dude. He may never know how close to death he came.” Fortunately, the guy quickly apologized. Months later, she also celebrated New Year’s Eve at my apartment. At one point during what became a four-hour dance party, she practiced Jennifer Grey’s leap into Arturo's waiting Patrick Swayze arms, and wouldn’t quit until they executed the iconic lift with perfection, ringing in 2014 as we played “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” on repeat.
Thankfully, we got there, to that space that feels like the best first date of your life, that all interviewers crave—where other sounds disappear (in this case, the piercing wails of a flock of Park Slope’s children), and the world seems to stop spinning, just to enable this moment. I know I only scraped the surface of what is her deep interior well, but at least I got to see the shape of that well, and see some of its outpourings.
Melissa was born in the beginning of December at St. Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury, Connecticut, the same hospital where her brother and her parents were born. Both of her parents are the third of seven children in large Catholic families, and they met in Waterbury, “The Brass City,” when they were teenagers, getting married three years later. On their first date, Melissa’s French-Canadian father Roland and Irish-Catholic mother Eileen made plans to go waterskiing. Roland had long wavy hair, not unlike Americanized depictions of Jesus, and he showed up at Eileen’s house barefoot, leaving his banana-yellow 1970 Firebird parked in the driveway as he came to the door to say hello. Though they’ve now been married for almost 40 years, Eileen’s mother enjoys telling the story about how petrified she was that her daughter wouldn’t return home safely from a date with this guy who couldn’t afford shoes, yet somehow drove such a spicy car.
The majority of both sides of Melissa’s family still live in or around Waterbury, but Roland and Eileen moved north and slightly east to Bristol a few years into their marriage. Their home in the suburbs looked like the rest of the homes on their block, and it’s the same home they own today. Roland, a patient, thoughtful man, attended a technical high school and became a trade carpenter, building cabinets and doors and working in detailing. When their kids were born, Eileen waited tables in the evening while Roland worked during the day. Eventually, when Melissa and Roland Jr. went to school, Eileen—ever organized and proactive—found a job that would overlap their schedules as a paraprofessional, assisting with special education in various elementary schools.
Family was Melissa’s life, and she watched her parents live simply and work hard to raise her and her older brother. She was an extremely shy child and teenager. Her natural disposition for working quietly translated into the classroom where she was an excellent student. She particularly enjoyed math, appreciating being given sufficient information and data that enabled her to solve complex problems. She spoke up in class when she was expected to, and when she felt strongly about something, but rarely otherwise. She sensed early on that sometimes people talked just to hear themselves, and she always felt that less was more. It seemed obvious that quality would win over quantity.
It wasn’t an explicit expectation that she begin working as soon as possible, but she took over her brother’s paper route when she turned 13. It didn’t feel like some huge sacrifice that she would get up a bit earlier every morning as her family and neighbors slept, hop on her bike, and ride around delivering papers so she could earn her own money. When she turned 16 and wasn't playing soccer or running track, she continued working at a local supermarket and eventually at a food stand in , an amusement park in Bristol. (She was soon promoted to manager of the food stand, and it should be noted that, after she left, there were a few deaths at the park.)
She wanted to get involved in theatre at Bristol Eastern High School, but it was too big a stretch for her shyer personality. Sports provided her with a critical social outlet. She was a dynamite athlete, and in the context of a team she felt comfortable enough not only to be aggressive but bloom out of her shell into friendships with her teammates and into her natural gifting as a leader. In track, she ran the 800m and 4x4 relay, selecting those events because she considered them the hardest, leaving her, as she explained, “with nowhere to hide.” She quickly became captain of her soccer and track teams and early on she chose to lead primarily by example—again, using her words only when necessary.
Melissa’s reticence was not standard-issue shyness; it was also evidence of her precocious wisdom, which she credits to her parents’ Catholic values. She went through every rite of passage at St. Gregory, the church her family attended every Sunday in Bristol. Mass broadened her perspective beyond the walls of her own life and concerns, buoying her with the awareness that it was a waste of time to become wrapped around axles of trivial or selfish concerns. That spiritual upbringing also carved out a calm interiority in her mind, which in turn created an ability to be deeply comfortable while alone. She also became convinced that loving people well mattered the most.
Every Sunday after Mass, her family would drive the 12 miles back to Waterbury to visit her maternal grandparents’ home for family dinners (in the same house where Eileen had grown up). All of Eileen’s brothers and sisters and their kids crowded into the one-floor ranch-style home, comprised of a living room, kitchen, and one other common room. The closeness of the space translated to the closeness of their relationships, and that blood community and its accompanying support and love provided Melissa with deep, tethering roots.
Despite being the home of ESPN, Bristol was an unremarkable town, the main street peppered with chain restaurants, a Walmart, and mostly lower-middle class stretches of suburban homes. It’s the kind of small town that most young people leave only provisionally, for college or brief explorations, ultimately returning to be with their families and start their own. Melissa and her closest friends were not of that disposition. She literally counted down the days until she could leave for college. She didn’t know what she wanted to do but she had the sense that if she went away, she could reinvent herself to a degree—get outside the routines she’d grown stuck in and escape the settled perceptions of others. If you’ve grown up in a small town, you know what it’s like to be plagued by people’s unwillingness to imagine you beyond their memories of your fifth-grade self. Melissa wanted a new beginning, to let her world take on new shapes and expand to meet her insatiable curiosity.
She had visited colleges in Boston and came close to leaving Connecticut entirely, but practicality won out and she chose Eastern Connecticut State University. She found a home at ECSU, and immediately she felt more outgoing and comfortable than she had in high school. It was a Division III school, so she was able to play soccer. ECSU was also where Melissa met Teresa Belling (known to CFSBK as a powerhouse athlete). Melissa and Teresa played soccer together and were roommates for most of college, drawn to each other because of their shared family values. They took long runs through the woods of Willimantic, and maintained a regimen of two, sometimes three-a-day workouts, biasing legs on Mondays and Wednesday, “bis and tris” on Tuesday and Thursday, and sit-ups daily. They worked hard at school and soccer, and played hard on the weekend. (Ask Melissa about how she introduced Teresa to alcohol.) All told, college was a wonderful and gratifying experience.
Melissa majored in Economics and worked summers as a teller at Fleet Bank, which gave her a sense of the scope of bigger banks. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after graduation, but a relative got her an interview at a fledgling hedge fund in Westport, Connecticut, and she was soon employed in their Operations department. That hedge fund was Bridgewater Associates (a name she dropped casually, as though it was some local bank and not a $100-billion-plus company that’s made more money for investors than any other hedge fund, ever). Melissa was drawn to the company’s ethical and inventive ethos, and she could lead there the way she led on the soccer field—by example, through hard work, as part of a team. By age 25, she was managing a team of four other employees and had received numerous promotions. Even if she didn’t love what she was doing, she was responsible for it, so it was going to be perfect.
Around that time, she and Teresa, who was working for ESPN, had moved back in together. Despite continuing to play soccer and the fun they and their friends were having on the weekends partying and dancing in New Haven, Melissa’s life revolved almost entirely around work. That familiar restlessness returned. In the middle of her fifth year at Bridgewater, she realized she was completely exhausted—and much like how she felt when she left Bristol for college, she was ready for a new experience, and for the borders of her world to break and extend yet again.
In the spring of 2007, Teresa and Melissa packed a car and left Connecticut for Brooklyn. They found an only slightly decrepit apartment in South Slope, which cost twice as much as their loft apartment in Connecticut (which had had a swimming pool). Melissa’s parents helped them move, and when they arrived at the apartment, Eileen opened the door and entered the bathroom, where the toilet was clogged with a large, rank pile of feces. Many mice abided in the apartment alongside Melissa and Teresa, the furnace broke down in dead of winter, and though they eventually hightailed it to Kensington Gardens, they were both 25 years old and sold on New York City.
Melissa started working in Human Resources for Goldman Sachs and Teresa was still working for ESPN so the pair slogged through gruelingly long weeks, hanging out on the weekends playing co-ed soccer and hitting an array of “globo” gyms. Melissa logged time primarily in spinning and step aerobics classes and with Nautilus machines. She started complaining to her brother over the phone about her boredom in the gym. He had recently begun following CrossFit’s main site programming (along with the Navy SEALs training component), and he told her to check it out. She had no clue what any of the movements were on the daily WODs, but she and Teresa, always ready for a new adventure, decided to spend a Saturday morning taking a teaser class at a gym in Manhattan. The teaser was half of Cindy. Melissa used the fattest band possible for her pull-ups, did pushups on her knees, and couldn’t achieve full range of motion on her squats. But she finished. She and Teresa went to brunch afterwards and could barely lift coffee cups to their tired faces. Nonetheless, they thought This is awesome. They went through the gym’s Foundations program and kept training in Manhattan for about six months, until they found CrossFit South Brooklyn.
It was the summer of 2010, and the garage doors were up as they walked in one evening after work. Fox was coaching, but there wasn’t a front desk yet, so he approached them and started talking to them. He thought they both looked like “heavy hitters” (in addition to assuming that they were a couple) and he hoped that they would come back. They did. After a few months, Fox invited them both to join the competition team classes and Melissa became in May 2011.
Things were going beautifully at CFSBK, where both Melissa and Teresa had fallen in love with not just the physical training but also the community. The welcoming, kind ethos exhibited by the coaches and athletes felt reflective of the values that had drawn them into friendship with each other years ago. But over at Goldman Sachs, the creeping feeling of restlessness, exhaustion, and dissatisfaction returned for Melissa. A steady stream of Why am I doing this, I’m not making any impact in the world, This work is so insignificant, played like the lyrics to a bad song in her head. Melissa knew that if she was going to spend that much time dedicating herself to something, she needed to feel that it made an impact on peoples’ lives in some consequential way.
So in 2011 she quit her job and began taking the pre-requisites necessary for applying to Physical Therapy programs. Fitness and sports had been the dominant themes of what she’d always been most passionate about, along with loving and caring for people, and it suddenly felt like pink cursive writing scripting her calling across the clouds. She also became convinced that she wanted to move back to Connecticut for school, buy a house in the middle of nowhere with lots of land, and be near her family again.
But then she was invited to begin coaching at CFSBK in early 2012, and with much prodding from Fox and others she checked out some New York schools. When she visited Hunter, she knew she’d found the one. (She was so stunned when she was accepted to their program that she asked them if they’d made a mistake.) She started in the summer of 2013, and the experience of PT school alongside coaching continues to convince her that she’s found how she wants to spend her professional life. She loves understanding physiology and how marvelously the human body self-regulates, and she loves learning the nuances of CrossFit’s lifts and teaching progressions and how to correct common errors in movement. Managing all this new data and information, and using it to solve peoples’ problems in a functional, important way, is a perfect fit.
That familiar process of blooming, of being part of a team, has also woven its way into the fabric of her story at CFSBK. The combination of her dry, quick wit and unassuming demeanor means her humor catches you when you’re least expecting it and in the best way. Jess Bailey remembers one class where the Question of the Day was about something you regretted losing. One guy referenced once losing a bunch of CDs and jewel cases, and Melissa asked him to repeat his answer and then laughed. "Oh, I thought you said you lost all your Jewel CDs!" she explained. Two minutes later, she started playing Jewel songs during the warm-up.
We’re about an hour and a half into our interview, and her ceramic pot of jasmine tea and mine of decaf coffee are long dry. Suddenly, I’m not pummeling her with questions to keep driving her divulgences forward. The sounds in the restaurant have faded, and a bubble seems to form around us. She’s saying that she doesn’t know how she got here, what a miracle it is that things somehow fall into their right place. “If you had asked me even three years ago what I’d be doing now, I would have had no idea that I’d arrive here. But it seems to be working out well.”
Still, though… “There’s so much out there,” she says. Her voice is even quieter than usual but she’s still looking me straight in the eye. “The world is a big place, and to be tied down in one place for an extended period of time—there’s always something else. Whenever I think my world is too small, it’s depressing, there’s so much more I could be doing.” This disposition shows itself in her affinity for being a bit of a daredevil, for finding ways to experience life at its limits; a few years ago, she went skydiving and last year she bought her first motorcycle. “Without the gym,” she continues, “I absolutely would have moved somewhere else. I feel connected here, it’s my community and my family. But I’m never satisfied. It kind of sucks.” The beauty of a restless heart is ambition and openness, but its casualties (even in a life well-attended by loyal friends and family) can be loneliness, and a lack of absolute contentment—though never a lack of gratitude for the gift of being alive.
The whitened sun is setting when we leave the restaurant to walk back to her car, casting everything in a matte shade of pale yellow and dove gray. I say something about how brief it all is, how I never want to get to the end and wish I had done something differently. She nods and looks down 5th Avenue as we wait at the light to cross the street. “You only get one,” she says.
Favorite way to eat eggs: in pancakes
Favorite lift: Clean and jerk
Any assumptions CFSBKers make that she would like to disabuse them of: She is not, nor ever was, a gymnast (though she wishes the opposite were true).
Favorite band: The Band