From Kyiv to NCAA Elite Eight: Maria Lyven '22 Leads Sagehens to Quarterfinals in the Face of Obstacles

Maria Lyven '22 plays at the number one singles spot.

The road from Kyiv, Ukraine, to her senior year at Pomona College has been paved with challenges for Maria “Masha” Lyven ’22, from arriving in a new country at the age of 17 to contending with a pandemic to watching a war unfold in her home country from afar. In the midst of these obstacles, she has traversed the journey with resilience and was recently named SCIAC athlete of the year for women’s tennis.

“Masha is one of the hardest working people I know,” says Melisha Dogra PZ ’22, co-captain with Lyven of the Pomona-Pitzer women’s tennis team.

When Lyven arrived at Pomona from Kyiv, she had only recently begun learning English, through a combination of teaching herself, attending a tennis academy in Florida her junior year of high school and meeting occasionally with a language tutor in Ukraine.

Although she had offers to attend NCAA Division I schools to play tennis, Lyven chose Pomona for the academic focus.

Studying in the U.S. at Pomona meant writing her papers in Ukrainian first, then translating them to English. She also had to interpret a new culture. People here were much chattier than she was used to and very career focused. Much of Lyven’s first year was spent adjusting to this new landscape.

The women’s tennis team was her foothold. “It was really fun to be part of the team and be part of a group where everyone is committed to the same goal,” Lyven says. Her first year, she qualified for the NCAA singles tournament, and the team finished fifth in the country.

The following year, the tennis season was curtailed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lyven couldn’t return home due to travel restrictions, so she stayed with a Pomona classmate for two months. Eventually, when she was able to return to Ukraine, she had to fly from Austin to Atlanta to Amsterdam to Belarus and then drive an entire day from there to Kyiv.

Back home, Lyven navigated similar challenges as many other international students did at the time, most notably attending classes over Zoom in a different time zone. She decided to take a leave of absence for one semester during that time of remote learning.

This past fall, Lyven came back to Pomona as a second semester junior. Upon her return to the fall season of tennis, she injured her back and had to sit out until the spring season. But she “overcame that and really got herself going in a good place coming back,” says Mike Morgan, head women’s tennis coach.

At a national tournament in March, Lyven was serving “about half underhand, half overhand,” says Morgan and “still winning.” “She has a level of quiet grit about her that you just don't see every day,” he says.

That tournament took place about a week after Russia invaded Ukraine.

At the tournament, her teammates wore yellow and blue ribbons in support of Lyven and her family. Last month, Lyven organized a fundraiser with the help of her teammates for the Ukraine Global Crisis Relief Fund. By selling cupcakes, flowers and Ukrainian candies at one of their matches, she raised about $1,600.

“The war has definitely affected me negatively,” says Lyven. “I’m constantly anxious about my family. I don’t know when I’m going to see my parents. It’s very scary, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m very angry, sad, frustrated and anxious about not being able to be there.” Lyven’s parents reside in the suburbs of Kyiv and are currently faring alright.

The next stop on her path is an internship at Lyft in New York City this summer. The internship offer came as a tremendous relief to Lyven, a computer science major, since she can’t return home. She is interested in UX (user experience) and product design as a career, combining skills in creative thinking and problem solving that she has gained at Pomona.

Lyven’s success on the court this season recently earned her the SCIAC athlete of the year award, playing at both the number one singles spot and number one doubles spot with Nina Ye ’24. The team is currently ranked number two in the country and will face Middlebury on May 23 in the NCAA quarterfinals. Lyven has led her teammates in setting their hopes high. “I think we really have a good shot at winning nationals,” she says.