Ukrainian Teens Find Refuge on the Tennis Court in Iowa
While bombs flew through the sky in a war-torn country last year, three Ukrainian teenagers were safe in Fairfield, Iowa. Thanks to a generous community outpouring, they were able to go to school at Maharishi School, an independent, non-denominational college-prep boarding school.
While the three girls, a freshman, sophomore and senior, left their country and family behind during wartime, they were able to find refuge on the tennis courts. None of them had played the sport before, but decided to give it a try.
“We felt getting to smack tennis balls is good therapy for them,” said their coach, Lawrence Eyre. “It’s nice to be on a court where there are rules and they relished all of it.”
Eyre has been coaching at the school since he founded the tennis program back in the late 1980’s. The boys tennis team won 16 state singles, doubles and team championships under his leadership. He was selected by the USPTA as National High School Coach of the Year in 2009.
Originally from the Quad Cities, Eyre later graduated from Yale University and came back to Iowa to work at the Maharishi School as a history teacher and tennis coach. He also coached collegiately at Grinnell College and Knox College.
“It’s fun for me to take whoever comes and see how much they can grow,” he said about coaching. “Improvement is how we measure success.”
“I signed up and instantly fell in love with the sport,” said Mariia Minieieva, the senior. “My coach, Mr. Eyre, was amazingly supportive, patiently guiding me and offering words of encouragement.”
Minieieva was very athletic as she was an aerial gymnast back home. According to Eyre, she had quick feet and was able to get to the ball to win points. She loved being part of a team.
- Coach Eyre and Mariia Minieieva
“There's something genuinely magical about how I feel when stepping onto the court. I don't know how to describe it, but it feels like all my troubles disappear, leaving me with an overwhelming sense of lightness, ease, and pure enjoyment. In those moments, winning or losing becomes irrelevant,” she said.
The sophomore, Olena Lysychonok, was a very patient learner and Eyre hopes she will come back and play next year. The freshman, Sofia Kandyba, had worked her way up on the tennis court. By the end of the year she was playing at the #6 singles slot on the varsity team.
“She had good shot-making skills,” he said. “There was one match against a rival team and it came down to her. She lost the first set, won the second set and won the tie-breaker. She was thrilled to win the match, and we (the team) won the match.”
Eyre acknowledged that each of the girls had a lot going on when they arrived in Iowa, and he did the best he could to help them acclimate to their new environment.
“They had a lot on their plates, and we were extra alert to their feelings. We tried to keep a softer environment around them,” he explained. “Their opponents had no idea they’re from Ukraine where bombs were going off.”
The boarding school is unique as it incorporates Transcendental Meditation twice daily. They call it Consciousness-Based education.
“Our students and teachers take time to transcend twice a day, with the practice of yoga and Transcendental Meditation,” according to the school’s website. “It improves brain functioning. In a world of nearly incessant outer stimuli, it gives them a respite of inner silence, a connection with their own individual true self.”
Eyre said each of the girls are from different parts of Ukraine, so did not know one another when they came to Fairfield. The oldest, Mariia, graduated this year and will be attending Grinnell College in the fall, which is about two hours from Fairfield. However, the transition was anything but easy.
“The war changed so many things that I wasn't prepared for,” she said. “Reflecting on it all, during my first semester, I dedicated my days and nights to working on college applications, leaving little time to form close connections or truly enjoy life. This period was the toughest I've ever experienced. I worried not only about my future, but also about the fate of my younger brothers, parents, grandparents, and the entire country.”
Mariia’s family recently moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where they are renting a house and looking for jobs. They had to abandon their properties, jobs, schools and country, all while learning a new language. Things are difficult but she’s thankful they are closer, and for the kindness of others.
“While things may seem challenging, I take comfort in knowing how strong my parents are and how many wonderful people support them. I believe that with their resilience and the help of those around us, everything will work out in the end.”
Eyre has coached many kids and adults in his storied career. Marria, Sofia and Olena have left quite an impression on him.
“Their willingness to take on so much change inspires me,” he said.
Meanwhile, Olena and Sofia will continue their education and tennis at Maharishi School, a world away from their former lives.