Chapman University is 3,498 miles from Guayaquil, Ecuador.
For Maria Belen Meza, or, as she likes to be called, Mabe, the long distance was not going to get in the way of furthering her education.
Meza, a sophomore chemistry major, went out for the track team last year, despite major differences between the track and field competition in Ecuador and the United States.
“When I came here I realized, track is something huge,” Meza said. “All the girls would say, ‘there were about 100 people on my (high school) track team’ I was like, that’s a lot of people, because back home we only had five.”
When Meza joined the team, head coach Anna Wlodarczyk said she anticipated a tough transition to Division III athletics.
“The first week when she joined us, I noticed she had to learn a lot,” Wlodarczyk said. “The first week for her was kind of stressful.”
The sizes of the track and field facilities at Chapman and other SCIAC schools were a big shock for Meza, she said.
“Back home, we don’t have all these facilities like you guys have,” Meza said.
Coming to Chapman and leaving her parents and sister behind was stressful enough for Meza, who relied on Skype to quell her homesickness.
“It was very hard at first because I was very homesick,” Meza said. “But now, with Skype and stuff it works out pretty well.”
As a child in Ecuador, Meza participated in gymnastics for six years and started running track and field at age 12.
Meza began speaking English at an early age, and attended a bilingual high school, allowing her to more easily adjust and get along with all of her teammates.
Though a lifelong athlete, sports were a bonus at Chapman for Meza, whose main motivation to go to the United States was to earn a degree.
“I saw how the academic system works here and thought, sure I will apply and see if something happens,” Meza said. “And now I’m here.”
After a lot of training, weightlifting and learning, Meza is highly regarded by her coach as well as her teammates.
“She blossomed so much and she is so respectful. She learned so much, and, yeah, she is one of my top athletes now,” Wlodarczyk said.
Meza competes in the long and triple jumps, the 100- and 200-meters and is one of the four legs of the 4×100 meter relay.
Meza broke her personal record in the long jump at this year’s second Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) multi-dual meet, where she jumped 4.59 meters, good for sixth place at the meet.
Fellow sophomore and school record holder in the 100- and 200-meters Lauren Deats agreed with her coach’s assessment.
“Meza is an excellent teammate. She always gives 110 percent every practice and every meet,” Deats said. “She is a genuine and caring individual.”
With both school and sports on Meza’s plate, she said she is excited to take it all on.
“I am very happy. It is such a privilege to study and practice sports,” Meza said. “It helps me organize my time.”