TOLEDO, Ohio — February 2022 rocked the foundation of families all across Ukraine. As Russia invaded the country, it sent people scrambling just to stay alive. Lolita Gukasyan, a tennis player at the University of Toledo, is one of the many who had no idea just how much her life was about to change.
“I was walking in Odessa to do some of my stuff for my documents and there was no siren and I just heard this sound and I looked up and (two rockets came across the sky),” Gukasyan said. “It was a scary situation. Just talking about it now I’m a bit nervous about it.”
As the reality set in, her family had to make the most difficult decision of their life.
“My father just told me I have to leave my country to be more safe,” Gukasyan said. “He was so worried about me. I was in Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Ukraine and then I moved to America.”
Her journey to nine different countries in nine months happened while she watched her country being ripped apart from afar. She eventually came to the U.S. in early January 2023.
“Tennis courts where I won the tournament last year ... they’re gone,” Gukasyan said. “Many places in Kyiv where I was with my friends to hang out after tournaments, there’s nothing. It’s so sad. Places where you grew up and had so many memories, there’s nothing now.”
At just 19 years old, Gukasyan was forced to make decisions that would change the rest of her life.
“I just had to do it because there’s no future now,” she said. “You can’t live free there, so I had to move somewhere. I had to move somewhere to create my future to do something.”
She’s now writing the newest chapter in her life as a freshman for the Rockets.
“She couldn’t wait to start class, it’s something we take for granted, but it’s a dream to come to college to play the sport that you love and to get an education,” UT tennis coach Tracy Mauntler said. “She’s resilient and I think she’s really taking in and appreciating everything that comes with being a student-athlete here at Toledo.”
It is still difficult for Gukasyan to communicate with her parents back in Ukraine. Her hometown of Odessa still has no power or warm water. Her parents have to travel to a mall to make phone calls. But with every serve, she’s one step closer to achieving her dreams and making a new life for herself in the U.S.