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Christina Epps welcomed back to Coppin State as school's first-ever U.S. Olympian

Christina Epps — the first U.S. Olympic athlete in Coppin State history — returned home after qualifying for the Rio Games in the triple jump at the U.S. track and field trials.

Between the two bundles of balloons in the lobby — blue and gold for Coppin State on the left; red, white and blue for Team USA on the right — two Coppin State staffers tried to figure out the best place to honor their newly crowned Olympian.

Should they put her in the center of the lobby, in front of the balloons? Or off to the side, next to the table holding two cakes with her picture on them? The school wasn't exactly used to this opportunity, and wanted to make sure it was just right.

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Finally, just before noon Thursday, triple jumper Christina Epps — the first U.S. Olympic athlete in Coppin State history — walked into the lobby of the Talon Center on campus wearing a navy blue Team USA track suit. She stood in the center of the room, with an entire community coming through the front door, gathering around her and watching in awe.

For the next hour, Epps completed the routine that comes with being an Olympian. One by one, about 100 incoming athletes, alumni, friends and staff swarmed the new celebrity. They congratulated her, and she thanked them. They posed for a picture, and she smiled. They asked for her autograph, and she happily obliged.

By 1:30 p.m., only a half-dozen people, including her coach, remained. Her hand had gotten a bit tired from all the autographs. But smiling? No, Epps can't help but smile given her position.

"That's just something I do," she said afterward, still beaming.

It was a good day to work at Coppin State, too. At 12:15 p.m. Wednesday, university President Maria Thompson arrived to congratulate Epps and say a few words to the crowd of fans. She spoke in the dining hall next to the lobby as incoming students in Coppin State's summer bridge program ate lunch, and she didn't have to go out of her way to get the students excited.

"And just for you, to show you your future," Thompson said, pointing to Epps. "This is what you can grow up to be — an Olympian."

The university hasn't been able to say that for very long. Already, since Epps qualified at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials last Thursday, Coppin State coach and interim athletic director Alecia Shields-Gadson has seen an uptick in calls from prospective athletes inquiring about the program.

Wednesday, the school made sure Epps felt appreciated. Shields-Gadson said the athletic department initially planned on honoring Epps with a small presentation, but the general administration wanted in on the ceremony, so the school brought in seemingly everyone it could find to congratulate Epps. "I'm really not used to all of this press and attention," Epps said during a break in the whirlwind, but then she had more people to greet.

"I feel like I'm the pride and joy of Coppin in this moment, and I'm very proud to be that — honored to be that," Epps said. "I couldn't ask for anything more."

That's the reception she gets for sticking with the school where she started. After Epps finished her career at Coppin State in 2014 and won the U.S. championship in the triple jump in 2015, she could have moved elsewhere and trained on a bigger stage. (She wouldn't give specifics but mentioned opportunities at bigger facilities on the West Coast.)

Instead, Epps stayed in Baltimore, training at Coppin State year-round with Shields-Gadson.

"I've had offers, but no, [leaving] didn't cross my mind," she said. "I'm really comfortable with my coach. Our relationship is really strong. When you have someone who believes in you just as much as you believe in yourself, you never want to leave that."

Epps still works as an academic adviser for the school's athletes, and after she returned to Baltimore from the Olympic trials Sunday night, she came back to work Monday morning and will train at Coppin State until she leaves for Rio de Janeiro on July 27.

There was nothing ordinary about Wednesday, though, not to anyone who had the chance to meet Epps. Afterward, when the attention died down, she took a moment to reflect on the welcome home she received.

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"I did come here for an education, but I never imagined I'd be at this stage," she said. "I wanted to excel athletically, and I did well. But you know, I just … I never imagined this."

A moment later, another crowd of people found their way into the lobby. They congratulated, smiled and asked for autographs, just like the earlier guests had. Epps doesn't have to imagine this dream anymore — she'd better get used to it.

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