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‘It’s time to fight’: With mom as manager, North Jersey teen boxer aims at Olympics

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EAST HANOVER — Elise Soto is almost always in motion.

Long brown hair braided into a tight bun, she bounced around the boxing ring during a recent practice session at the gym built by her parents, Veronica and Danny Soto, under their Ultimate Fitness Superstore along Route 10.

Originally designed to show off equipment, the expansive space decorated with U.S., Mexican and Puerto Rican flags became a pandemic home for Elise and the other fighters her parents manage. It has two regulation-size rings, punching bags hanging from the ceiling and more than enough cardio machines to entice both fighters and buyers.

The 18-year-old featherweight from Randolph took out her frustration on a padded box mounted on the wall, focusing on attacks from different angles.

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Soto had wanted to be a surgeon, or maybe a professional soccer player. Until she discovered boxing.

Almost from the moment she stepped into the ring four years ago, her goals changed.

“I fell in love with (boxing) more than anything else,” Soto said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do this for a living.’ I love the science behind it. It’s really an art.”

Soto’s next stage: Olympic boxing trials

For Soto, the Olympics − boxing’s biggest international stage – quickly became the dream. She will compete at USA Boxing’s Olympic Trials starting on Monday at the Cajundome in Lafayette, Louisiana. The finals are scheduled to begin at noon on Dec. 9.

The 13 boxers who win their weight classes at the trials will advance to January’s selection camp. Team USA will next fight at the World Qualifiers, where nations earn spots at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

More: Can New Jersey boxing fight back from the brink of extinction?

Deborah Grant of Spring Lake, North Carolina, and Sierra Martinez of Colorado Springs are the top two seeds among the eight women in the 57 kilogram (126-pound) weight class. All are more experienced than Soto, who has an 8-8 amateur record.

An analytical fighter, Soto has watched most of her Trials opponents at past national competitions or on video. In the ring, she is aggressive, preferring to be proactive and not change her style in response to competitors. She studies other boxers’ mistakes, plotting out strategies to capitalize on them.

“The goal is to hit and not get hit,” Soto said, as a timer at the East Hanover gym counted down three-minute rounds. “Everybody gets hit, but it’s how you handle it and counter. … If I do get hit, I always come back stronger, and do my best not to get hit with the same shot again.”

Mom is in her corner, literally

Growing up in Wappingers Falls, New York, Soto wanted to follow in her mom’s cleats and play soccer. Veronica Soto, 42, was interested in boxing while growing up in White Plains and Beacon, New York, but no gym seemed open to women. Instead, she focused on soccer and tennis in high school, morphing into strength and conditioning and athlete management after her playing career ended.

Veronica Soto is a boxing trainer, manager, and “cut lady,” licensed to be in her daughter’s corner during fights. So it wasn’t surprising when Elise got got hooked by the action unfolding in that basement ring.

The younger Soto played soccer at Randolph High School in the COVID-limited 2020 season. But after that, she switched to an online educational program so she could focus more time on boxing. She earned her high school equivalency a year early in 2021.

“The girl doesn’t back down from anyone,” Veronica Soto said. “She just keeps coming. She’s one of those you want to watch. She will give it to you as good as she gets it.”

A student of her peers, from Shadasia Green to Zhilei Zhang

Soto is a student of her boxing peers. She said she picked up “defensive moves, angles, how to use your jab … reflexes, being able to put yourself in a position to punch, little things with their footwork,” by watching more experienced fighters like the Chance brothers – Rajon, Jahlyte and Emmanuel – from East Orange.

Other elements of her style, she said, come from Paterson super middleweight Shadasia Green, featherweight Amanda Serrano, middleweight Ian Green of Paterson and even Chinese heavyweight Zhilei Zhang. Soto has even been in the ring with some of them, including pros, at the private East Hanover gym.

Soto took her lumps early on, but her trainer, Aroz “Terrific” Gist, said she is able to hold her own now.

“You’re going to see her innocence right off the top. Then you’re going to see her focus,” added trainer Shaun George, a two-time New York Golden Gloves champion who lives in Wayne.

“People always underestimate her, because she’s not the flashiest boxer you’ll see. But with me as her coach, she’s doing different things she hasn’t done before to take it to the next level.”

Fighting spirit from the soccer field

The Olympics have been Soto’s sole focus for the past couple of years. Her childhood dream of attending Yale and then medical school are temporarily on hold.

Iliana Soto, Elise’s older sister, will likely be the future scientist. She is planning to transfer from County College of Morris to Vassar to study neuropsychology. Her younger siblings, 11-year-old Eva and 8-year-old Zizu, have also found their way into the ring, training once a week with George or their parents.

Back in the East Hanover gym, Elise glanced over and smiled as Eva made the much larger George dance around the ring.

If Soto qualifies for the 2024 Olympics, she’ll keep training for the next 200-plus days until the Paris Games. If not, she will likely turn pro next year.

“I’m more excited than anything. I know what I can do in the ring,” Soto said of the upcoming trials. “Once I’m there, the hard part is basically over. It’s time to fight.”

Jane Havsy is a storyteller for the Daily Record and DailyRecord.com, part of the USA TODAY Network. For full access to live scores, breaking news and analysis, subscribe today.

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Email: JHavsy@gannett.com Twitter: @dailyrecordspts

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