As one coach put it, cross country runners enjoy what most athletes think of as punishment.
Olivia Orr is one of those that admits she likes it.
“I think a lot of people that run cross country don’t like it,” she said. “But I think once you really start working on yourself and fighting through the pain, eventually you get to the point where it hurts but it’s a good hurt, like this is a good thing I’m doing. It makes it a lot easier to push through at those five miles or to finish a race.”
It’s an indication of the mental strength and endurance, the personal self-discipline that is in many ways unique to runners, particularly distance runners.
The daughter of Philisia Orr, a teacher at Parkway Elementary, and John Orr, a teacher and coach of freshman track and football at Bryant Junior High, Olivia Orr signed a national letter of intent to continue doing what she loves in cross country and academically at the University of Arkansas-Rich Mountain, a junior college associated with the UA-Fayetteville, located in Mena.
The program is just two years old. UARM was a two-year technical school known as Rich Mountain Vocational-Technical School since 1973. It merged with Henderson State to become Rich Mountain Community College in 1983. In 2017, it became affiliated with UA-Fayetteville.
The athletic program includes men’s and women’s cross country, soccer, baseball and softball.
“So, being brand new, I wanted to get out and meet with all the coaches,” said UARM cross country coach Samantha Shores. “I started locally then kind of expanded out across the state. That meant a lot of times at cross country meets and track meets.
“I’ve gotten the chance to see Olivia run over the last year and a half, caught her at different times,” she continued. “You go back at the end of one year and forward to the beginning of a new year and you start pulling rosters again and it’s, who stands out?
“And I have a plan this year for my girls and I’m looking for a particular type of girl,” Shores continued. “I want a set time and I want a group of girls that are going to run really well together. You know, they tend to run together when you can group them that way and she fits right in with what I’ve been recruiting. So, I invited her out to come visit the school and I was very happy when she decided that this is what she wanted.”
Orr admitted she didn’t know there was a University of Arkansas-Rich Mountain.
“Fortunately, Coach Shores reached out to me,” she related, “and said that she would love it if I came to visit and maybe consider going there. And I was real excited.
“Once I got there, it had all these great things,” Orr added. “It’s such a nice little college in a nice town — it’s a cute little town — and I was like ‘Why did I not know about this college?’ It’s like a little secret. I’m so blessed that I know about it.
“I considered CBC,” she acknowledged. “They gave me an offer but, after consideration, going to Rich Mountain, it definitely felt better overall. So, I’m glad I made this decision.”
Orr is a four-year letterman in cross country at Bryant. Her freshman year, she earned all-conference honors. She was the only freshman called up to the varsity by Bryant head coach Keith Dale.
“When I got moved up to run with the senior high, that was a really big deal to me,” she recalled. “It was, wow, this is such a big honor. And I’m really glad that Coach Dale let me move up. I was a little bit scared because I was the only one, but I was really glad I was able to run 5K’s with all the ‘big dogs’. I was excited about that.”
At the conference meet, Orr ran a 21:40, finishing ninth overall and as the second finisher for the Lady Hornets.
Her junior year, she also finished second among the Bryant contingent, earning all-conference as the sixth-place runner overall with a personal-record time of 21:29. That year, the Lady Hornets won the 6A-Central Conference championship.
Last fall, the Lady Hornets were league runners-up with Orr finishing 10th overall to earn all-conference honors. She was Bryant’s third runner.
“That is the race that all cross-country teams remember as the mud pit of 2019, worst conditions to run a cross country race in,” Dale related. “Still, Olivia gutted it out.
“Olivia is a very accomplished young lady,” he related. “She’s very determined. She’s always there whenever we have an open door. So, early in the mornings, late in the afternoons, Olivia’s always there, ready to run, ready to compete, ready to do what she can.
“She has natural drive,” Coach Dale said. “She wants to drive to succeed. I mean, it’s all intrinsic. That’s what she wants and that’s why she’ll go to every practice that we have, whether they’re required or not because she understands the importance of it. That’s what makes her such a good runner. The will to succeed. Even when she gets down, she has a way for lifting herself up and pushing through.”
When she started participating in sports, cross country was not on Orr’s radar.
“Since my dad was a coach, as soon as I could walk, I was in sports,” she mentioned. “I was doing softball and basketball and soccer. So, sports was always just something that I was going to do.
“Once I started getting serious in high school — they always told me that I didn’t have to stick with it but, I guess, just knowing they always had my back with sports, made me know that I could do it, even though it’s hard, even though it’s a lot of work. Cross country’s painful but I realized I could do it and I asked for it.”
Seventh grade was her first foray into distance running.
“I tried out for cross country and track,” Orr related. “Cross country was never really a plan. I never thought I was going to do cross country in high school. I signed up for track and basketball.
“Coach (Lisa) Dreher was like, ‘Why are you not doing cross country?’ I was like, ‘Because I don’t want to.’ She said, ‘Why don’t you give it a try?’ So I did and I ended up thinking, ‘What did I just get myself into? This kind of sucks.’
“But I’m so glad I decided to keep doing this,” said Orr. “As soon as the meets started and I started making friends and I realized, ‘Hey, I’m a little bit good at this’ — I’ve always been fast. I never felt like long-distance fast, but I was always a front runner for the team.
“It’s like, once you get good at cross country, you just make a connection with the sport and you just want to stick with it.”
One of the appeals of Rich Mountain too was the area of study that Olivia wants to pursue. The school has a strong journalism department, particularly of the electronic variety.
“That’s one of the big reasons,” she allowed, adding when she found out about the program, “I said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to go to Mena.’”