The University of Virginia mascot program keeps the element of anonymity in play to separate the person inside the costume from the mascot's character. The sources in this article are kept anonymous to ensure the mascot's identity remains secret.
When Emily Martin* stepped into the dark, heavy suit for the first time, she didn't know what was going to happen.
She put on the blue full body costume and oversized boots. She stretched white gloves over her fingers. Attaching the cape to her shoulders, she felt the long material flow out behind her. She placed a mask over her head.
She was ready.
In Charlottesville, Virginia's city center, a parade kicked off the University of Virginia football season, with hundreds of people celebrating. The band played music, but it sounded quiet and muffled through the giant mustachioed head. She saw people cheering. Martin was in constant motion, high-fiving fans, running around, throwing her hands in the air to generate excitement from the crowd. Children ran toward her with open arms. And yet, no one knew who she was.
A guiding hand signaled to Martin to jump on to the front of a green John Deere Gator and ride down the parade path. Hundreds of fans smiled, applauded and waved as she passed. She could barely make out their faces behind the darkness of her mask. Sweat dripped down her face inside the sauna of the suit, but the outside world saw only a cartoon man's face. After several minutes, the Gator stopped and the hand signaled to Martin to step off the vehicle. She hopped down and reached out to find the hand to guide her to the next place she needed to be.
But the hand was gone.
Martin turned in circles, looking around for help, but she had no time to search -- a huge crowd had surrounded her. Lost in a swell of darkness and heat inside the mascot suit, Martin pressed on, and dancing her way through the confusing scene, still searching for that missing guide. But she could not stop.
She could do nothing but be the University of Virginia Cavman.
As the mascot for the University of Virginia Cavaliers, Cavman holds a beloved position in the hearts of Virginia students. He is a cavalier, standing well over 6 feet tall with a cape, giant blue boots, white gloves, a cartoonish, grinning face and the Virginia sabre logo across his chest. His character is the epitome of masculinity: bulging arm and leg muscles under a tight blue suit and a thick, dark goatee. The way he walks, swaying and confident with hands in fists, a proud expression, the chiseled jawline and cheekbones -- everything about him, it oozes testosterone -- a man's man.
But not for Martin.
Martin has loved mascots and the idea of being a mascot for a long time -- she enjoys the thought of making people happy, especially children. She played basketball and lacrosse during high school, but when she came to the University of Virginia, she struggled with how to become athletically involved.
Last summer, Martin learned about auditions for Cavman. She and her friends started joking she would audition for the part. After reading an online article from a few years before, Martin learned there had never been a female Cavman, which made her really want the position.
The first round of auditions were written -- she answered why Cavman was important to the community by saying he brings the community and university together. She also described what qualities about herself made her right for the position, and answered she would be willing to protect his secret identity.
Martin passed through the first round. Next, a phone interview. She was told a scenario, and had to respond to it. If the university won a football game and fans started rushing the field, what would you do as Cavman? She said rushing the field sets a bad example, so Cavman should be a role model and not do it. Or, if there is a small child who seems hesitant about meeting Cavman, how do you approach her? Since Martin studies elementary education and works with children weekly, this scenario did not scare her. She answered she would bend down on her knees to appear more approachable and reach her hand out for a high-five.
Martin made it through this round, too, but still she did not feel confident about the final round of auditions. Going into it knowing there had never been a female Cavman, she figured it was useless. Immediately, she stumbled.
The cheerleaders played a song and Martin had to dance for 30 seconds. Cavman's head felt bulky and awkward over her own, but she danced anyway, not even able to hear what song was playing. She tried to dance "like a man," using big movements and stopping herself from shaking her hips.
"It was so awkward because no one is cheering, they are all just staring at you," Martin said. "You feel like an insane animal in a zoo exhibit."
After being asked to interact with different objects, she picked up a football and tried to throw it toward the cheerleaders at the judging table -- the ball hit off target. After getting through the entire audition, Martin ran out, tripping and drenched in sweat. She had lost her earrings. She cringed at the memory of getting through the auditions, regretting even trying out.
Two days later, she received an email saying "Congratulations to the new Cavman team for 2016-2017 season!" She screamed from excitement. Her perseverance and outgoing attitude, in addition to her high energy, is part of what helped her secure the job.
"She's very outgoing, she's very charismatic, upbeat and I feel like that comes across when she's in the suit, because she moves around a lot and puts up her hands and stuff," said Rachel Wilson*, Martin's roommate. "She's definitely very outgoing, which is a really good characteristic."
Still, Martin is torn about her relationship to Cavman's personality -- at times, she finds it difficult to portray the machismo Cavman requires.
"It's a lot harder for me because I'm a girl," Martin said. "[Cavman] is super masculine and he's supposed to be a gentleman." She feels she does not fully resonate with these characteristics, thus making it more challenging for her to exude the masculine traits the four other male Cavmen portray.
Martin said the way she naturally moves -- putting the palms of her hands flatly on her hips instead of balling them in fists, or resting her weight on one leg are actions her coach said would make the mascot appear less masculine -- is less like Cavman.
The minimum height requirement for being the mascot is 5-feet 10, making it less likely for a woman to be tall enough to audition. Martin stands at exactly 5-10, and she also has mastered some of the stereotypical masculine techniques it takes to be Cavman.
"I think it's always funny because it's a guy's face and Emily is a girl under it," fourth-year student Daniel Hansen*, another Cavman, said. "She'll pound her chest and stuff. It's not a girl movement to go crazy and do that, but she does it and it's super cool."
The Cavman suit is difficult to control. The costume begins with spandex pants and an upper body spandex shirt. Both pieces are filled with padding to give the appearance of large arm, leg and chest muscles, while also masking anyone inside the suit so it looks consistent.
Then, there is a full-body velvet jumpsuit attached to a cape in the back. Velcro straps hold down the oversized boots. Cavman's head goes over the wearer's own head, attached to a bicycle helmet on the inside. Last, a pair of white gloves. The suit is incredibly heavy and the boots make it clunky to walk around. The dense and multiple layers restrict the material's breathability and make for an uncomfortable, hot experience.
Since the Cavmen take shifts inside the suit, the later shift is especially sweaty and smelly. The boots are not secure enough for fast movements, so the person inside often has difficulty moving around in public. The person inside sees through Cavman's eyes, which is rare for a mascot design -- it is difficult to get accustomed to the shift in field of vision.
More than once in the press box, when Martin takes off the Cavman helmet for a breath of relief, people take notice.
"I took the helmet off and everyone in the press box was like, 'Oh my gosh, you're a girl?' and freaked out about it," Martin said. "Some people handle it super weirdly and don't expect that to happen. I don't know if that's because our mascot is literally a guy, so maybe girls are deferred from doing it because [people think] a girl can't do it because it's a guy character."
But her fellow mascots don't mind. Hansen, who has been Cavman for three years, said the dynamic among the five current students playing the mascot is not significantly different from before Martin joined the cheer team.
"Emily didn't come in thinking, 'I'm the first girl, I need to prove myself, I don't belong.' She came in being like, we're no different," Hansen said.
The dynamic among the people in the mascot suit is vital -- it contributes to a smooth transition between each person. The students practice the same walk and general movements to ensure they look as indistinguishable as possible.
Since Martin has been Cavman for only eight months, she is still figuring out the movements and intricacies of the character. Her personality inside the suit has not fully developed, but Hansen said what stands out about Martin is how much she cares for children -- this trait transfers to her personality inside the Cavman suit.
"When she is hanging out with a little kid, she will immediately get really low to the ground and make the kid feel very comfortable," Hansen said. "For me or someone else, we might not think to get low. We'll think, we're tall, so we don't need to get down, but Emily will get down to the person and make the person feel super, super comfortable."
Back at the parade, Martin finally found the familiar guiding hand in the crowd. And then another surprise: Martin learned she had to get on stage as the main act of the pep rally to celebrate the beginning of the football season.
"I was supposed to be the main act, and no one had told me this," Martin said. "So they were like, 'Run, you have to go up there and just do stuff,' and I was like, 'I don't know what I'm doing!' So I just jumped on the stage and the place is just full of families and children ... I was just running around, trying to be happy for like half an hour, just ... dripping sweat. I was so tired."
But Martin did not give up -- which is why she is Cavman.
*All names have been changed to protect anonymity.