The athletic life for many college athletes ends once they receive their undergraduate degree. However, UCCS senior guard Sophie Abela plans to use the knowledge and skills she’s developed at UCCS to help others follow the same path she has.
Born and raised in Swieqi, Malta, a town of 14,000 people on the northern shore of the Mediterranean island, Abela grew up in a family of athletes. While water polo is her family sport, Abela found a passion for basketball at an early age that shows in the bond she has developed with her team.
“I have such a good relationship with my teammates all the time. It’s such a nice team sport because you can celebrate one another and each other’s achievements. I just loved that growing up,” Abela said.
She finished her Maltese schooling when she was 16 and moved to Italy to play basketball until she could continue school. When she turned 18, with the support of her family and her community in Malta, Abela moved to La Junta, Colorado, to play basketball for Otero Junior College (OJC).
At OJC, she helped the team win their conference championship and to the sweet-sixteen of the NJCAA national tournament. Once she joined the Mountain Lions in 2021, Abela quickly established she was an indispensable teammate. She started 22 of 26 games in her first season, averaged the most minutes played per game and led the team in assists with 75 over the season.
Abela’s dedication to her team is striking, and even after a severe injury in her senior season, she is only concerned about returning to her team. Halfway through the season against Chadron State, Abela broke her hand while going for a loose ball. The injury required surgery and three screws, but despite the setback, she said, “I just had my post-op, and I go back in two weeks, and I’m hoping I get cleared. If not, I’m just going to tape this up and go.”
However, while her collegiate career is coming to a close, Abela said a few European clubs have already expressed interest in her continuing to play basketball. She also has two years remaining with her water polo club, so competitive career is nowhere near finished.
Aside from competition, Abela is looking to use her sports management degree to help give other European athletes the same opportunity she had. “My plan is to build the sports education in Malta and help it become something similar to the American system,” she said.
Growing up with sports, Abela finds comfort in athletic environments, which allows her to indulge her passion for helping others. “I know that if I wake up every day knowing I am going to help an athlete or student do better in their life, it’s something I want to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
Abela said it’s a dream for athletes to come to the states and play sports in college since Europe lacks any major intercollegiate sports organizations. Back home, she said it can be hard to be a student-athlete since sports are all done through clubs instead of the schools. “If you have a game and need to leave class early on a Friday, the professors complain,” Abela said.
According to Abela, athletic aspirations in Malta are not encouraged at the same level they are in the states. However, at UCCS, she felt her professors encouraged and even worked around her athletic demands. She said in Malta, “they take sports seriously at the level that it’s at, not at any level higher than what it is.”
She felt the disconnect made it challenging to balance school and athletics, but she found relief in the professor’s willingness to work with her demanding schedule. “I thought it was really ideal because they are training you to be both an athlete and a student at that next level.”
While Abela’s athletic talents brought her to the US, her drive and self-discipline are what have made her as successful as she is. Leaving her home country for the first time at 16, Abela is comfortable relying on herself for motivation. “In the end, I was here because of my own decision — no one forced me to be here.” However, she said, “I came to the states. I am going to do well, on and off the court.” Last week, Abela was selected for the 2023 RMAC All-Academic Honor Roll, earning a 3.37 GPA.
Having never missed an assignment in four years, her consistency in the classroom mirrors her consistency on the court. “I’m hardheaded. I’m not going to come and not get my minutes or not do well in a class. Because at the end of the day, I’m getting my education out of this as well. So, I believe that me pushing myself, knowing what I want the outcome to be out of this helps me [to succeed],” Abela said.
With graduation only a few months away, Abela is excited to begin this next chapter in her life. She plans to return to Europe, but like most students, Abela doesn’t know the exact path her life will take. However, if her time at UCCS is any indicator of how her life will go, I think we can all be sure that not only will she succeed, but so will those she dedicated herself to.
Sophie Abela plays against Alaska Fairbanks on Nov. 11, 2022. Photo by Lillian Davis.