Above photo of Olivia Champion by Andy Zavoina/AMZ Images, courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- The last four years of Olivia Champion’s life have been spent in the United States. But it was the seven years prior to that, spent nearly 2,400 miles from Belton, that shaped both the person and player she is today.
A junior forward on the UMHB women’s basketball team, Champion’s journey to Belton was a unique one, as she was born in Tallahassee, Florida, before her and her family relocated to Costa Rica when she was 12 years old, becoming missionaries to the people of the central american country, whose population is over five million.
“My parents just felt called to the mission field and they were like, ‘This is what the Lord has for us and we’re going to go and we’re going to bring our kids along,’” Champion recalls.
It was a huge transition from living in the U.S., but her father, Eric, noted that not one of their three kids ever complained, instead choosing to embrace the new opportunities that were presented in a place far from America.
“They never complained one time,” Eric said in a recent interview. “Olivia never complained, she bought in, and of all my kids, Olivia’s like, ‘I’m learning Spanish’, more than my other two. By the time she left, at age 17, she was doing postgame interviews on television in Spanish.”
That “buy-in” attitude, something the entire family shared, allowed them to do God’s work in Costa Rica, with each member of the family playing a role. Looking back, Olivia recalls some of her favorite opportunities coming in the work they did in the orphanages and with the youth of the communities.
“Some of my favorite experiences were going to the orphanages,” Champion said. “I love kids and so being there and being a part of it was super cool. My parents also brought short-term mission trips down there as well, so I know so many different people across the country through bringing people down.”
While Champion helped bring glory to God in Costa Rica, her time there also brought about growth in her own life, as she came to Christ during her time there.
“I actually came to the Lord when I was in Costa Rica,” Champion said. “I was about 14 years old, at church camp. I think that was also a humbling experience for me. People expect as a missionary kid, you’re supposed to have it all together, but I found the Lord when I was on the mission field with my parents. My whole story is rooted in Costa Rica.”
And that story also includes her basketball career. Though she took to the mission work quickly, her dominance on the court took slightly longer to develop. In fact, it was in Costa Rica that Champion began playing basketball competitively, though it was something she’d grown up around, considering her father had coached for many years at the high school level in Florida, and also coached the national teams in Costa Rica upon the family’s arrival.
“Olivia really didn’t play much basketball in her elementary years,” Eric said. “When she got here, that’s when she really started. She’d always been athletic and fast, I knew she was going to be ok. But she didn’t have the fire really, until maybe 15 or 16.
“When she got to be 5’9, 5’10, of course that’s not normal for girls down here, she started seeing some success and said, ‘Maybe this is something I want to do in college’.”
However, that success did not come quickly, even with her height.
“Her personality, she doesn’t want to rock the boat,” Eric said. “She comes to a new country, a new program and team, and says, ‘Let me ease my way into it.’ For the first six months, she took maybe one shot a game. And then she got comfortable with the U15 team she was on, but by that time, they wanted her to play First Division, the highest level that they have down here in Costa Rica. But then she got scared all over again. And finally the girls on the team were like, ‘You’re here for a reason, we need you to be active, and if you’re not going to shoot, just crash the boards and get rebounds.”
Champion (Back, third from left), played on the Goicochea First Division Women’s Team starting as a 14 year old
Champion took to that, and as her confidence grew, so did her recognition in the women’s basketball circuit of the country. It is important to consider that the basketball setup Champion was playing in doesn’t compare to the way it is played at the prep levels in the U.S. On her team as a 15 year old, the roster included women in their 20s and 30s, and the level of play was much more aggressive than in the States. But the talent level was much lower.
“In the First Division, it was ladies from 30 years old down to me as a 14 year old,” Champion recalls. “It taught me to get up and play. I couldn’t be scared, because they weren’t going to hold back.
“I moved back to the States when I was a junior in high school, and I averaged about four fouls a game. That’s just because they let you play [in Costa Rica]. It’s very rough, so I had to get used to holding back and staying a little more composed.”
That aggressiveness has helped Champion at UMHB, as she has established herself as a player who will do whatever it takes to retain possession, get a rebound or create a turnover.
She came back to the U.S. for her final two years of high school, living with her aunt and uncle, with the goal of being recruited to play at the college level. She found her perfect fit in a school that did not even have her on its radar until she reached out to the coaching staff: UMHB.
“I really just wanted to go to a Christian atmosphere and wanted to go to something small as well,” Champion said of her decision to play at UMHB. “I’d never been to Texas until I came on my visit here in November of my senior year, but the moment I stepped on campus, I was like, ‘This feels like home.’”
She stepped up last season as a sophomore, starting 10 games and playing in all 21. At forward, she averaged 6.7 points and 2.4 rebounds per game. Everything is pointing towards her improving on that this coming season.
And that doesn’t just go for her performance on the court. After serving the Lord some 2,400 miles from Belton in a foreign country, she was asked, how has she continued to bring glory to God at UMHB?
“Coming into this season, something that the Lord really placed on my heart was just, ‘Go in there and have fun, be a positive influence and a positive light’,” Champion responded. “There’s so much outside negativity, with people saying, ‘UMHB is overhyped,’ or ‘UMHB can’t do this or that’. Ultimately, I’m not going to the WNBA after this, so why am I here? I really feel that the Lord has put me here to be that positive influence on the team and cultivate relationships.”
While it has been four years since she last lived in Costa Rica, the impact of the seven years she spent in the country is everlasting. And she is reminded of that every time the words, “Olivia Champion from San Jose, Costa Rica” blare throughout the arena as starting lineups are announced.
“People ask me, why do you list Costa Rica as your hometown?,” Champion said. “Honestly, that is where I became Olivia Champion.”