MERIDEN — Coralis Soto has always loved to run.
The 17-year-old Maloney High School senior, a standout athlete in both distance and sprint running, has only been with the track team for one season. Her coaches still find it hard to believe that just two years ago, Soto attended a school in Puerto Rico that did not have a track team. Soto said she simply enjoyed running in her free time and loved her life on the island.
Then, in 2017, Hurricane Maria hit.
Soto and her family were in their home in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, during the storm. She remembers the fear she felt while taking shelter as the howling wind wreaked havoc outside. Soto and her family tried to keep the floodwaters out of their home to no avail, she said. Several months after the hurricane, with her parents struggling to find work, they decided to leave.
“It was difficult,” Soto said. “I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to stay over there with my friends and family.”
Soto moved to Meriden in December 2017 with her mother, father and sister. The family decided to move to Meriden because Soto’s mother had family in the city. Maloney was much bigger than her school in Puerto Rico and she felt overwhelmed because she didn’t know English.
“I left a classroom crying because I didn’t understand,” Soto said.‘Don’t need to talk’
During a routine pacer test in her gym class, her gym teacher and head track coach Don Askew recognized Soto’s talent. Askew said Soto outran many of the other students and he knew she had to join the team. She’s one of the rare athletes that is skilled in both sprint and distance running, Askew said, and she had the ideal running form without any formal training.
“I was like, ‘we need her on the track team,’ ” Askew said. “She agreed to do it and ever since she’s been with us.”
Soto was apprehensive about joining the team at first because of the language barrier. Her coach encouraged her.
“To run you don’t need to talk, you only need your legs,” he would say.
With the encouragement from Askew, Soto joined the team in September 2018. Her teammates were very welcoming and she made new friends quickly, Soto said.
In her first practice with the distance team, her teammates began counting in Spanish during the stretch to make her feel more comfortable. She was grateful for the gesture. Since then, everyone has received her like family.
With help from a translator and several teachers, Soto was able to learn English within a year.
“She’s one of the hardest-working kids on the team,” Askew said. “She made an immediate impact. She made herself really stand out with her work ethic and just her technique in general.”
Distance coach Derek DeStefano said Soto is a key part of the team and last week contributed to “shattering” a school record in the 4x800 relay.
In the annual Silver City Track Meet on Wednesday, the Maloney girls won a pair of relays. Anne Bekasi, Soto, Charlise Levesque and Lauren Matias capped the meet with a win in the 4x400. Soto, Levesque, Morgan Kicklighter and Annelise Montuori also won the 4x800 relay.
Soto “has been a very important part of our team,” DeStefano said.