Bear beginnings: a student’s quest to be the university mascot

The Bear will perform at Saturday's football game

Chloé Risto (right), assistant cheerleading coach, helps student Priyanka Deodhar try on the Bear costume for the first time. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

It’s Day One of mascot tryouts at Washington University in St. Louis, and Priyanka Deodhar, an exchange student from France, is hopeful.

“I know I can be a great bear if they give me a chance,” Deodhar said.

We’ll spare you the suspense and reveal right now that Deodhar gets her chance. And so does senior Caroline Dempsey and sophomore Henry Roseman, the other students who “try out.” Chloé Risto, assistant cheerleading coach, concedes that she can’t be too choosy. Being a mascot is hard work, especially on a Division Three campus where sports take second place to studying. Risto pays her bears $9.25 an hour, and still she only had two regular mascots last year.

Sophomore Jessy Kline was one of them. She was at the tryouts offering encouragement and answering questions. No, the bear does not talk. Yes, the costume gets washed after every wear.

“I am very pleased that more people want to be the bear,” Kline said after practice. “And by pleased I mean relieved. Last year was pretty grueling.”

Deodhar gives a fist bump to Steven Ambler, associate professor of physical therapy at the School of Medicine, and his children Ella, 7, Avery, 5, and Nolan, 2. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

But thrilling too. Washington University Athletics are on a roll, Kline said. Last year, the Bears won their 21st and 22nd NCAA national championships and hired Athletics Director Anthony Azama, who is bringing new excitement to game day. Indeed, more than 2,900 fans — a 21st-century Francis Field record — cheered on the football Bears at the home opener against the University of Chicago.

“That game was so much fun,” said Kline, who was her high school’s Viking mascot. “People who think sports aren’t a big deal here haven’t been to a game.”

Risto helps Deodhar into the school’s new bear costume — first the puffy chest insert, then the furry brown suit, followed by enormous red sneakers, the head and the paws. The old bear didn’t have pants; this one wears basketball shorts and a wide grin.

“I feel like the old bear was sort of terrifying,” said Risto, who also serves as a graduate student adviser at the Brown School.

Deodhar side-steps around the Field House, high-fiving cheerleaders who are participating in their own tryouts. Risto likes what she sees and invites Deodhar to perform in front of a real crowd at the upcoming volleyball match.

“Some people want to be a mascot because it gives them the freedom to be someone different,” Risto said. “But I get the sense there is not a big difference between Priyanka the person and Priyanka the mascot.”

Deodhar delighted children on her first day as the Bear. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

Indeed, Deodhar arrives at the match in the same good spirit she will bring to the court. She poses for photos with fans, hands out university T-shirts to children and races up the stands, no small feat in those big sneakers. For someone who has never seen a mascot, she’s a natural.

“In the places where I have lived, sports mascots aren’t really a thing,” said Deodhar, who has lived in Oman, United Arab Emirates and France, where she studied political science at Sciences Po. “Being a mascot is the most American thing I can think of.”

The game is over and Deodhar starts to walk off the court. But not before a toddler runs up and squeezes her leg. Deodhar kneels down, blows a kiss and gives a big hug

“That just made my heart feel so good,” Deodhar said afterwards. “Even though no one can see my face, I could not stop smiling.”

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