Rachel Soto-Garcia leads the Nottingham High swimming team, in part because of her prescription goggles. The senior, who is legally blind, said before a teammate gave her the eyewear she could only see blurs and colors while swimming. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

A “Secret Santa” present usually provides a gift card, a gag gift or some trinket to dress up a desk top. But for Rachel Soto-Garcia, Secret Santa unlocked the secret to her swimming improvement.

So much so, that she is a team leader and one of the top swimmers as a senior on the Nottingham High girls’ team. It would have been hard to imagine such a thing just two years ago.

After coming out for the Northstars as a sophomore, Soto raised some eyebrows in the pool during those first few months.

“She kept running into walls,” coach Andrew Parsons said. “She had very bad eyesight.”

“Very bad” may have been giving her too much credit.

“My vision was a negative eight,” Soto said. “Once you’re past negative five you’re technically legally blind. So when I was in the water, all I saw was blurs and colors, and my depth perception was bad. So when I was flipping into the wall, I would either miss or my whole butt would just hit it. I was like ‘Darn.’”

That wasn’t just a problem in the water.

“When the coaches were talking to me, I couldn’t see them either,” Soto said, with a laugh. “Half the time, they’re just moving blurs, and I’m like (smiling and nodding) going ‘Yeah, OK, I’ll try that next time.’ And I didn’t even know what they were showing me. I used to just swim really fast, because I didn’t understand what they were telling me.”

In other words, Soto had no idea where she was in the pool as far as positioning. She didn’t know if she was leading by 10 meters, trailing by 10 meters or neck and neck with a swimmer. Thus, she gave it her all, every second instead of pacing herself when necessary.

“I used to just swim meets like a drill because I thought that was normal swimming,” Soto said.

One day in the locker room, Soto complained to teammate Caylee Aanonsen that she was unable to see. When she told Aanonsen she was legally blind, “she laughed like it was a joke and I said ‘No, I’m serious.’”

‘A lot of times when I couldn’t see I just felt like I was swimming alone. I didn’t know where I was in a race.’

Soto mentioned her sight prescription to Aanonsen, who had an eye-opening brainstorm. When the team Christmas party came along, her gift to Soto was a pair of prescription goggles.

Let there be light!

“Once I got my goggles, it was like ‘Wow!’ I could see everything in a flash.” Soto said. “It helped me because I could see where people were in the pool, and what I was supposed to be doing. I could see the wall. It was really great.”

Parsons could not believe the sudden change.

“Overnight she went from one of the slowest lanes to the fastest lane, just because she could see,” the coach said.

Not only that, but the extra effort she put while trying to compensate made her even more effective when she became aware of her situation.

“Every time I re-adjusted I was trying to keep up,” she said. “Because of me trying to keep up, it helped me get fast in the water. I fixed my stroke from there, and since I already had a good work ethic, I just got better. When we all started out together, everyone excelled but me, and it was really heart-breaking. But I thought I’d get there one day. Her getting me those goggles gave me the opportunity.”

Soto’s main event is the 200 freestyle, although she is also strong in the 100 free. She won her first race of the year at Hightstown in a personal best 2:31.35, and lowered it four days later against Lawrence with a 2:30.20. In pre-prescription days she started at a 3:29, but had one of her biggest drops at the CVC Newcomers meet when she went to 2:55.

“That was one of my biggest highlights so far,” Soto said.

Last year, although she did not reach the final 12, Soto finished in the top 20 in the Mercer County meet. She also pulled off a key 200 victory against Steinert in a rare Northstars win over their Klockner Road rival.

Ironically, Soto has her biggest issue with her top event.

“I love the 100, I love the 50, and I hate the 200 the most but I’m the best at it,” she said. “Something that you’re good at is always going to be the hardest, I think.”

Fortunately for the Northstars, Soto does not shy away from something that’s difficult.

“She’s one of our hardest workers,” Parsons said. “At practice, the kids have a saying for her—stop and fast. There’s no slow in her. She works hard. The 200 is definitely her event. She excels at it. She’s got the right mix of endurance and speed and our goal is to get her to (county finals) this year. She’s also my fastest 100 free, my fastest in the back, and she will surprise you with her 400.”

All this from a girl who never had swimming on her radar as a freshman. Soto began her high school sports career on the track team but suffered a knee injury when she fell during a race. The prognosis was that she would be unable to run for a long while because her knee couldn’t take the pounding.

Soto was encouraged by a track teammate to try the summer swimming program Nottingham held for its students during the summer.

“I went there and started swimming and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is cool,’” she said. “Coach Parsons saw I had a good work ethic, and said ‘You should join the team.’ Since I joined, I got better and better.”

Especially when she was able to actually view what was happening during a race.

“You can see who you’re with; now you’re saying, ‘Oh my God, I can do this, I’m beating them,’” Soto said. “A lot of times when I couldn’t see I just felt like I was swimming alone, and I didn’t know where I was in a race.”

Soto knows exactly where she is these days, even on dry land. With a 3.93 GPA, the former student council member is looking into attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with hopes of being an engineer. She currently takes classes at Mercer Vo-Tech and has an internship teaching algebra and geometry at MVT.

Her goal this year is to reach the county finals in the 200 and also serve as a leader on a team that has lost three seniors for an unspecified amount of time due to injuries.

“A lot falls on her,” Parsons said. “Before she was able to bounce around, now she needs to carry the team. Her and our other senior (Julianna Martinetti) will step up, I think. She definitely leads in the pool by example during practice.”

She also wants to lead with her performance.

“Making county finals is a big thing, knowing I wasn’t part of a club and didn’t have swimming experience in my background,” Soto said. “Making it to counties would be an inspiration to other people, showing if you don’t start out good, you can still get better. I tell them ‘You guys can do it too, you’re the future.’”

Her leadership role should come natural now. After all, it’s always easier to show the way when you can see the way.