Underneath The Hoodie: Robert McDowell Myers
By Kate Reece
Weight: 200 lbs
DOB: September 24, 1979
Born and raised: Roanoke, VA
Place of higher learning: (mostly) Radford University
Ask him to recite a Jim Harrison poem from memory about a dog on a short leash and hear traces of a southern accent protract his vowels. Stand with him at a party, and listen as he describes which section of the crowd he’d pick to paint, based on the contrapposto of the subjects or the contrast of the lighting. Ask him to open your beer with a rolled-up magazine, or do a lick on his guitar over a ii-V-I chord progression. Actually—don’t ask him to do any of those things, because he’d immediately sense it wasn’t an original request and be irritated—quietly irritated. Instead, watch the man in action, shredding through a workout after coaching. Or remember him pedaling 100-plus miles through Southwest Virginia’s Mountains of Misery, then riding a quarter of the Tour de France’s mileage for 21 afternoons in July of 2010 (post-CrossFit at 7 am and work during the day). And remember the young man picking strawberries with his mother, jumping at any chance to toss a football with his dad in the backyard, stocking shelves with his grandfather at their local grocery store, and proposing to Ellie June on the coast of California (who fell for him when she learned about his love for Joni Mitchell). To know Robert McDowell Myers is to know dignity, in its silliest, most fun and fun-loving iteration. To know his life is to know adventure.
The boy was born on a Monday, the cusp of autumn in 1979, in Roanoke, Virginia, a small town that epitomizes the term “small town” (current population resting at less than 10,000). But his story starts earlier than his birth, reaching back to his namesake. Both sides of his family can be traced back to the beginnings of the state of Virginia, and his great great great grandfather on his mother’s side was named McDowell Fitzgerald, which was going to be his name. Instead, he was named after his father, Robert. McDowell goes by his middle name to prevent confusion. His parents, “Bobby” and Rosanna, met as teenagers in the early 60’s at a church in Roanoke. In 1972, after Bobby finished his time with the Navy (during which he helped build McMurdo Station in Antarctica), they were married, and soon had their three children—Caroline, McDowell, and Livingston.
McDowell’s story also starts on the land, the idyllic backdrop of his home. The yards of his parents’ house and dad’s father’s house blend together, and both houses are next to his aunt’s house. Behind the three houses, big open fields sprawl wide, some cattle populating one section, with a vast swath of woods framing the underbelly of the horizon. It was there that he would learn to run and play with his brother “Livi” and a couple cousins (who remain McDowell’s best friends), along with some neighborhood kids. They constructed log cabins out of felled trees, hiked around a nearby reservoir, and built fires in pits they dug in the woods. Television held no singular intrigue; it functioned solely as space to let McDowell’s mind rest and process the day’s activity, which often was spent daydreaming and entering the space of his imagination, in the safety of his portion of the earth’s wilderness.
It would be hard to expect any kid of McDowell’s youthful energy to settle down in a classroom, and Rosanna now enjoys telling the story of the week he began kindergarten. He hopped on the bus behind Caroline, his older and wiser sister, went to school, and had a fine and uneventful day. When he arrived home, his parents both looked at him anxiously. “How was school?” Rosanna asked. “Fine,” McDowell replied, shrugging. Both of his parents appeared deeply relieved. The following week before a long Labor Day weekend passed easily enough. But when next Tuesday rolled around, Rosanna went in to wake McDowell up (he woke himself up before the rest of the family on the weekends, so eager to play) and failed. He simply refused. His refusal did not come from an attitude of petulance or laziness. Rather, he had a precocious sense that certain things mattered more than others, and he could summon little interest in the things he felt were less important. Of course, he went back to school, but he would never be a consistently excellent student, except in the subjects that captivated him and felt meaningful on a deeper plane.
McDowell’s life became filled with his family, sports, and music. His parents had signed him and his siblings up for a sport every season as soon as they were old enough, and all three proved to be exceptional athletes. McDowell mostly played basketball and baseball, along with whatever else was in season. He also started racing mountain bikes when he turned 14. Then there was his guitar. At 15, he taught himself to play from a Neil Young book with his father’s acoustic dreadnought (he was raised on the four Bs: The Beatles, the Band, the Byrds, and the Beach Boys, along with other 60’s rock and roll). Learning to play music certainly didn’t help him focus more on school, but even when his parents grounded him, they never took his guitar away or told him he couldn’t play.
For a boy with such courage of his convictions, coupled with an easy talent at most things he set out to do and a sometimes-quick temper, it might have been easy to develop into a wild card, with a passion of the undisciplined sort. Especially as a young male, he needed boundaries—an example of what it looked like to wed masculinity with fundamental goodness. McDowell’s whole huge family contributed to shaping him, but he grew up reading a plaque hanging in his father’s office (which now hangs in Livi’s office), bearing a quote from Act 3 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”:
Sir, I am a true laborer. I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good…
Those weren’t just pretty words. McDowell’s father is notorious for his “stare”—a look he gives that communicates you damn well better shape up. The Myers’ family edict was simple: Don’t be a jerk. And what’s more: Do good. Bobby’s father was a labor leader, and Bobby followed in his footsteps as business manager at the Laborers’ Union, with a jurisdiction covering Virginia and North Carolina. No slight task in an area that generally despises unions.
McDowell likes to say that if he had been forced to do manual labor his whole life, he would have had a different appreciation for school than he did—the kind of insight that reveals his pragmatic instincts toward compassion, and awareness of the privilege that accompanies the hand he’s been dealt. He bounced around between colleges, never far from home and never quite sure what he wanted to study, always playing music. He was good at showing up for class, mostly out of respect for the professor’s job. He eventually settled on studio art—oil painting and photography—thinking he might go into photojournalism. Throughout college, he gave guitar lessons (and some mandolin) and played bluegrass on the scene in Southwest Virginia with a group of older guys he met at festivals and in bars, who had been playing their whole lives. Between semesters, he helped out at his grandfather’s store and worked various construction jobs. Eventually, he became a field representative for Laborers Local 980, talking to contractors and guys on the job, checking on them and dealing with any grievances. After college, McDowell started working full-time with the Laborers’ Union, training workers to enhance their skills when they were unemployed—work he would do, and do well, for the next eight years.
In 2005, a few years out of college, the boy had become a man (though you should ask him about the “retirement community” he lived in). And then came Ellie June. McDowell‘s cousin Bland went to school at Johns Hopkins, where Bland met a girl named Jen (who he would eventually marry), who happened to be friends with a girl named Ellie. McDowell, who had been going up to Baltimore to hang out on the weekends, first noticed Ellie talking to one of his friends across the room at a bar—a tawny-haired, ballerina-limbed, stunning woman. Aww, shucks, he thought, figuring she was taken. A couple weekends later, they both ended up at the same house party. McDowell was leaning against the refrigerator in front of Ellie, and Jen asked Ellie if she had met him. “Yeah,” Ellie fired back. “He’s the guy that’s full of shit.” McDowell flashed her a grin. Here we go, he thought. This is gonna be fun.
Fast-forward a few more weeks to MerleFest, an annual bluegrass festival in North Carolina. Ellie and one of her friends were going, and McDowell, Livi, and Bland had been going for years, so they all decided to share a campsite. The weather wasn’t great but that night, they sat in the front of the crowd watching the band, and they both happened to look up at the sky in time to see a shooting star gleam past. Later, they were all dancing and Ellie put a flower in her hair. As the party died down, they held hands for the first time. Ellie remembers saying to her friend, “McDowell’s going to be such a good friend. I can see us being such good friends.” McDowell, of course, had other designs. Five full years later, they were married, in June of 2010, and moved into his great-grandparents’ old house at the base of the Appalachians.
Rewind a couple years to early 2008. McDowell, active as ever, was still biking and exploring the mountains. He wanted to find a way to get stronger, but he was reluctant to train at a regular gym, because, “Well, it looked like a whole bunch of no fun.” So Bland called him up one night and told him to check out this website, Crossfit.com. McDowell did, and they completed their first WOD the next day, in an empty garage space at his office, with a set of dumbbells, a barbell, and iron plates. 7 am workouts pulled from Crossfit.com, plus some Olympic lifting cycles, quickly became their routine. They polished off their homemade gym by building their own squat stands, kettlebells, medicine balls, and a pull-up bar (ask him about these), and installed rings stations. Livi and one of their cousins, Chris, joined them, along with Ellie when she finally moved to Roanoke. McDowell found that the sense of fresh pride he felt in finishing workouts, especially the long and brutal Hero WODs, began to have practical applications with his career and how he carried himself. His familiar instincts kicked in; this felt right. He knew they’d found something special.
His instincts led him far enough to get his Level One certification, in the interest of setting himself up to eventually work in the field. He told a coach at his certification in Charlottesville that he and Ellie were thinking about moving to New York and the coach told him to check out CrossFit South Brooklyn, mentioning some good things about a guy named David Osorio. Ellie had found CFSBK on Google Maps even before the coach mentioned it, and when she read through the blog, she knew, These are our people. (She also knew that if they didn’t move close to a gym, in the absence of the mountains, McDowell “might lose it.”)
And move they did, in pursuit of new career opportunities and experiences they wanted to have before starting a family (including the NYC music scene). McDowell’s first class at CFSBK was a noon-er with Fox, and he got on the leaderboard for Annie (Ellie also quickly got up there, almost a dozen times). After his second visit, David invited him to the Competition Class. About nine months later and almost two years ago today, he spoke to David about coaching. He and MeLo started at the same time, in early 2012. He had finished the last of his work with the Laborers’ Union, which he kept doing remotely after moving, and none of the other positions he’d applied for in his line of work panned out. This, yet again, felt right. He still plays music daily, in the privacy of his apartment in Carroll Gardens, and has seen some of his favorite musicians perform in historic venues around the city. He and Ellie aren’t sure where their journey will take them in the near future, but they’re enjoying the ride—and we’re glad to have them as such an integral part of the staff and community at CFSBK.
(And now he does cool shit like this.)
How he likes his eggs: homemade eggnog
Favorite book: Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
Favorite lift: Snatch
Pets: Three cats, named Mallory, Tessa, and Hobbes
Something he’d like CFSBK members to know: He is never responsible for the country music—so stop accusing him. If he picked, you’d be listening to Coltrane.
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Total nerd actually owns his own computer