The first bellowing note of 2001: A Space Odyssey echoes off the concrete walls of Williams-Brice Stadium. All eyes are on a large black box on the field, and as the music builds to a crescendo, smoke begins to billow around the box’s soft vinyl walls.
Finally, fireworks erupt, the walls come down and Sarah Sylvester goes wild, jumping up and down and pumping her fists before a rowdy crowd of almost 80,000.
Except no one in the stadium actually sees Sylvester. They see South Carolina’s beloved mascot, Cocky. And Sylvester is perfectly fine with that.
“The most surreal experience is coming out of the box for the first time. Being Cocky is a very rare thing and not very many people get to do that,” Sylvester says. “When I came out of the box for the first time, that was the most insane experience.”
Sylvester and the Cocky persona have become incredibly close over her two-year stint as one of the most recognizable mascots in college sports.
Being Cocky has taken Sylvester to places she couldn’t even imagine, from ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange to cheering on the women’s basketball team at the Final Four and taking the football field with her parents — all three of them dressed as Cocky — during Family Weekend festivities.
“In the moment, I take on a new character and it doesn't really feel like what I'm doing is absolutely insane,” Sylvester says. “And then it's times like this where I reflect on it and think, ‘I can't believe I did all of those things.’ Who can say they did all those things?”
Now, she is ready to complete one of her last official acts as Cocky, donning the iconic yellow mascot shoes and walking across the graduation stage at Colonial Life Arena. There may not be any more tailfeathers to shake, but she takes with her two years of memories.
“It's changed my personality and given me more perspective on bringing joy to others and uplifting people. And hopefully I can continue to do it,” she says, nodding at her big yellow feet. “Obviously, it would have to be in other ways.”
In the meantime, Sylvester is continuing her education, pursuing a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at USC. She plans to complete the degree in just one year thanks to the accelerated graduate program.
“I always knew I wanted to be an engineer. I always loved math and I wanted to, you know, be a woman in a man's world,” she says. “Throughout middle school and high school, I volunteered at our local hospital and realized I loved the medical field but absolutely did not want to go to medical school. I did some research, found out that USC had a biomedical engineering program and never looked back.”
Sylvester credits the professors in the College of Engineering and Computing and the staff of the athletics department for much of her success during her time at USC.
“It's crazy to reflect on this moment in time and realize how far I've come. But it's bittersweet because I have come so far and I'm letting so much go,” she says. “I also know I have nowhere to go but up.”
Graduation photos by Madison Shull Photography.