Webster volleyball player Cassie Gray recalls a recent conversation with her parents. Gray was trying to explain to her parents, Rodney and Terri Gray, the meaning behind the word “slay.”
“We looked at Urban Dictionary, and it said ‘to do something well,’” Gray said.
This season as a sophomore, Gray stepped into the role as Webster’s libero, a position usually given to the best defensive specialist on the team, according to the NCAA. Rodney and Terri Gray said they are proud of how much their daughter has stepped up under this pressure.
“She is amazing,” Terri said. “She is a really good student, a good volleyball player and has taken a leadership role with her teammates.”
Gray exceeded the conference on the stat sheet. She led the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC) in total digs, with 504 digs on the season and making her the 11th Gorlok in Webster history to record more than 500 digs in a single season. She averaged about five digs per set, which was the most in the conference. All of these feats allowed her to receive a First Team All-Conference recognition at the end of the season.
Gray has also been successful in the classroom, earning Academic All-Districts which is awarded to the top student athletes in the nation for their combined achievements within their respective sports and in the classroom.
According to Gray, a lot of her accomplishments have been a result of her perfectionist mindset and desire to “slay” in every corner of her life. She said a lot of this mentality has been taught through the game of volleyball.
“The biggest challenge in being a perfectionist and being positive is not letting mistakes get me down,” Gray said. “You’re not always going to get a 100% or a good grade on everything, so I try to tell myself ‘it’s okay to not do well.’”
Sometimes Gray has a hard time remembering to shake things off while striving to be absolutely perfect in everything she does.
According to Gray, she came across an obstacle in her stride to be the perfect All-American girl when she decided to come out as gay.
In December of 2020, Gray said she accepted herself as bisexual. The pandemic gave her time to contemplate, and she was able to figure it out when she realized she had a crush on her now girlfriend, Abby Szydlowski.
“She made me happy, and I just wanted to be around her,” Gray said. “I thought, ‘this is probably more than what friends feel like.’ I had boyfriends, but I never really enjoyed spending time with them. They were cool, but that was it, that’s where it ended. I couldn’t process getting beyond that, but I was attracted to her. I really liked her, so that kick-started the gears in my head, and I decided to come out.”
Gray felt pressure to keep up an “All-American girl” image with blonde hair, a near perfect GPA and involvement in several school activities and clubs. She felt as though the long, blonde-haired, popular Cassie was no longer the same Cassie after she came out.
“I was doing well in everything, and I was this perfect image. Being gay, for a lack of a better word, shattered that image, whether people saw me as that or not,” Gray said. “In my head I was like, ‘I’m not this perfect All-American girl anymore.’ My image has changed and that was hard to accept. I’m not who I thought I was.”
Rodney and Terri both were proud of their child whenever she decided to come out as gay. Terri was thrilled her daughter was able to own herself, despite what others say or think.
“That’s something Rodney and I have always said was important, be true to yourself and don’t follow the crowd just to follow the crowd,” Terri said. “I was really proud when she said `this is who I am and this is what I want to be recognized as.’”
Gray said she found it especially difficult to come out to her teammates. Attending a liberal arts school like Webster gave her some peace of mind knowing a lot of people would be accepting. However, being a gay athlete made things different.
“It made me nervous because I didn’t know if everyone’s beliefs would line up with mine,” Gray said. “I was a little freshman who just got here, and I was gay. No one else was gay. I was really, really nervous because, what would happen if people didn’t like me? [Volleyball] is just such a big part of my life that I would feel like I was rejected from.”
Much of Gray’s challenge of being a gay athlete comes from the lack of coverage on gay athletes in the media. She said there are a few in soccer and basketball, such as Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird, but there aren’t any gay volleyball players getting the same coverage.
“There’s just not a lot of representation. I feel like there’s a lot of push back for people who do come out,” Gray said. “Sports are predominantly watched by straight men. A lot of straight men, especially some of those who watch sports, are not necessarily open to gay people or trans[gender] people. I feel like sports are kind of behind everything in society.”
Without a lot of role models to look up to and also coming out during a pandemic, Gray felt isolated figuring out her sexuality. She remembers asking herself why she couldn’t just like guys and wondering if something was wrong with her.
She also had these thoughts at volleyball and feared being seen as weird. She gets nervous going into the locker room with her teammates. As a volleyball player, the uniform includes tight spandex shorts. She doesn’t want the other girls to think she is staring.
“It’s a struggle,” she said. “I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable in any situation just because I’m gay. I just get nervous with those experiences and just being with all girls. I don’t want people to think I’m weird or hitting on them. Straight girls obviously don’t have that problem. I just want to exist in my sport, too.”
When she came out to her teammates at Webster, she felt a lot of nerves, but ultimately, they all were open and accepting of her.
“It was amazing because I was nervous, but I couldn’t have had a better experience,” she said. “All of them loved me so much. Everyone was so welcoming. They completely embraced me with open arms.”
Webster ended its volleyball season 15-12 losing to Fontbonne in the semi-finals of the SLIAC tournament. This gave the team a third place finish in the conference. Gray walked away from the match with 17 digs, which was a team high. Fontbonne went on to win the tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament.
Gray’s father said he is proud of how his daughter has excelled on both the court and in the classroom this semester. He also appreciates her determination and commitment and how she has become a person who can lead by setting a good example.
“She explained the word ‘slay’ to us and the way she explained it was kind of like ‘crushing it,’” Terri said. “Not just in volleyball, but with the friend’s she has met and with her classes and her job, I would say that is an appropriate term for her.”
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Kaelin Triggs (he/him) has been a part of The Journal since 2019. He is a journalism major pursuing a career in sports writing. He also runs for Webster's track and cross country team, and he enjoys playing piano and hanging out with friends and family.