From Ukraine to UWM, tennis player finds a new life

A week after the Russians invaded Ukraine, 16-year-old Nadiia Konieva set off on a journey that led her to the women’s tennis team at UWM.

Konieva and her mother, Iryna, fled to Poland from their home in Kharkiv, leaving behind her father, Serhii, other family and all of her friends. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, lies just 25 miles from the Russian border.

Her tennis coach and the father of some youngsters she’d worked with arranged for a bus to take a group to Poland and included her and her mother. The journey took four days because of all the traffic jams and shelling, Konieva recalled.

She had been planning to come to the United States eventually, Konieva said, hoping to earn a scholarship to go to school and play tennis.

However, the outbreak of war accelerated her plans. In Ukraine at the time, school was for only 11 years, making her a year younger than the average incoming college student in the U.S. (School has since changed to 12 years in Ukraine.)

Konieva took charge of her own future.

“We don’t have a lot of money in Ukraine, and it was very hard because no one knows me, so I tried to do it by myself.”

One big problem was that she had to leave almost everything behind in Ukraine, including her tennis equipment. However, her host family in Poland and a local sports club came to the rescue, helping her gather needed equipment. “So, I was able to keep practicing.”

Around the same time, a friend posted an Instagram story about an agency that would help Ukrainian young people get to the U.S. “I decided to try it and texted them.”

The agency helped her with all the visa documents and grade transcripts and put her in contact with three U.S. colleges. At the same time, UWM women’s tennis coach Ryan Kucera was recruiting for the team. Konieva, now 17, came to UWM.

“It was pretty hard, but I was admitted and arrived here Aug. 29.”

She has had a strong spring season, playing both doubles and singles. In early March, she and her doubles partner, Giorgia Cavestro, were named the Horizon League women’s doubles team of the week. It was a career first for both athletes.

Kucera has been impressed with Konieva’s accomplishments both on and off the court.

“The thing I was blown away with about Nadiia originally and still holds true today is that she’s got such great spirit.”

Konieva is extremely coachable and has improved through the year, he added.

“She’s one of those kids…you tell her to do something, and she does it at 100%. The results are showing up both on the court and in the classroom. She shows up every day with a smile on her face and supports her teammates. She’s inspiring.”

At UWM, Konieva is majoring in psychology, hoping to become a clinical psychologist and work with families or teens who have had trauma in their lives.

She had studied some English in Ukraine but improved her fluency while living in Poland.

“Poland was a very good experience for me because I actually don’t know Polish, so I needed to speak English. It was really good practice for me.”

Nadiia Konieva has taken a long journey from escaping the war in Ukraine to Poland and then to Milwaukee, where she’s a freshman psychology student and tennis player. (Milwaukee Athletics photo)
Nadiia Konieva has taken a long journey from escaping the war in Ukraine to Poland and then to Milwaukee, where she’s a freshman psychology student and tennis player. (Milwaukee Athletics photo)

Teachers supportive

She has found her teachers at UWM very supportive, Konieva said.

“I really like the teachers here because the teachers always say I can come for help any time. There is free tutoring so I can go and get help every single day if I need it.”

During the winter break, she worked part-time in housing to try to ease the financial burden on her mother, who is still in Poland. Right now, with schoolwork, practice and competition, she isn’t able to continue as a student worker.

Her teammates and other students have been welcoming and offer to help. Unlike the experience of some other Ukrainian athletes, she hasn’t found any negative reactions from Russians she has met.

Other students and teammates who know her background have been empathetic.

“A lot of people try to express that they want to help if they can.” The one thing they can’t help with, though, “is stopping wars,” Konieva said.

Worried about family, friends

Konieva plans to stay in the United States and complete her doctorate, a requirement in the field of clinical psychology.

She follows what is happening in Ukraine on the news. “When the war started, my mom was always checking the news. I tried to be kind of separate from it because it was super hard. I tried not to look at it.”

Now she stays in touch with what is happening through her family, coaches and friends who have scattered to Britain, Germany and Poland.

“I hope we can all get together this summer, but who knows what will happen?”

By Kathy Quirk, University Relations