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Last week, Madison Clinger finally got to share a secret she’s been keeping for three years.
Dressed in fluffy yellow boots, the latest graduate student announced at the University of Miami’s commencement ceremony strode across the stage, leading the crowd of thousands in a final “CANE-S” cheer.
The boisterous display officially revealed that Clinger was the first female to portray Sebastian the Ibis, the Miami school’s iconic mascot. It also shocked many of the Fort Myers native’s closest friends who had no idea what her feathered alter ego was.
“It’s a big secret on campus to protect Sebastian’s identity,” Clinger said. “At graduation, everyone was like, ‘How did I not know?’ It was unexpected to be showered with so much love and support.
Clinger made his costume debut at age 14, dressing up as “Little Zach,” Zaxby’s mascot after his mother Rusti Clinger opened the chain’s first Southwest Florida location in 2014.
“When you own a family business and you need someone to step in, your own kid gets the chicken costume,” Rusti Clinger said. “It was surprising how much she embraced it. The rest is history.
A standout softball player, Madison helped Bishop Verot High win a state championship in 2016. She also dressed up as the school’s mascot, “Victor the Viking.”
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In Miami, Clinger served as part of the exclusive team of students who serve as the university’s costumed ambassador as a sophomore. She then spent the next three years juggling creative excuses for why she couldn’t attend Miami football tailgates or sit in the stands during games with her sorority sisters.
“People saw me on the field before the game, so I told them I was working with the athletic department, helping with equipment or doing social media,” she said. “It was hard to keep the stories straight.”
Being Sebastian involved more than just attending Hurricanes sporting events. The legendary character is a coveted guest of honor at children’s hospitals, elementary and middle schools, bar mitzvahs, weddings and everything in between.
While each student puts their own spin on the mascot’s personality, Clinger said she feels more comfortable at events with children.
“In my group, I was known as the ‘Seb’ of the kids or the community,” she said. “I just loved the kids to death. They would be so excited for me to be there and the parents too.
Clinger, who entered Miami with the intention of going to medical school to become a children’s neurologist, left with a bachelor of science degree in psychology and criminology. This fall, she will begin pursuing a master’s degree in social work at North Carolina State University and wants to work as a clinical social worker. She said part of her decision to alter her career path was driven by her experiences as Sebastian.
“Being Sebastian helped me get there,” she said. “It allowed me to connect in schools and other areas where I saw children from all walks of life.
“I knew I wanted to help underprivileged children. It is not fair that they do not have the same access to resources as other children, when their future could be equal. I want to help break this cycle.
Clinger said what she will enjoy most about her time as Sebastian won’t be running around the pitch in crowded stadiums or the ability to travel across the country.
“I will remember how happy I made people,” she said. “For me, that was the best part.”
Connect with Dan DeLuca: @News-PressDan (Twitter), firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: ‘Big secret on campus’: University of Miami mascot revealed at graduation
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