By LOU PONSI     1/23/2024

Before helping the Mater Dei tennis team win its second consecutive CIF-USTA Southern California Regional title and first ever CIF state title this season, Veronika Zarovna had been on a months-long journey from country to country and continent to continent.

It began in spring 2022 in her native Ukraine, where the then 16-year-old fled from Kyiv to Poland, then to Denmark and then to the U.S., where she landed in Orange County. Along the way, some kind-hearted individuals entered Zarovna’s life, seemingly at just the right time.

In February 2022, Zarovna was living with her grandparents in Kyiv. She was being homeschooled and playing a high level of club tennis.

Then life took a sudden turn.

Russia invaded Ukraine and remaining in her homeland was risky.

“I had to leave because it was too dangerous, and there was no future for me there in Kyiv,” Zarovna said.

With little more than a bag of belongings, Zarovna took a train to Poland, where circumstances led her to refugee camp, alone.

Enter Jakob Illeborg, a well-known Danish journalist and news correspondent, who also happened to be a huge tennis buff and was friends with Zarovna’s coach in Ukraine.

After Illeborg and his wife learned about Zarovna’s situation, the couple purchased a plane ticket to fly her to Denmark.

“My whole journey started from there,” Zarovna said.

Illeborg and his wife went on to become Zarovna’s legal guardians and arranged for the teenager to attend a combination high school and tennis academy where she improved both her English and  tennis skills.

In a first-person account for a Danish newspaper, Illeborg wrote: “Helping Veronika is certainly one of the more meaningful things I’ve done in my relatively long life. Veronika is lucky because she has her tennis and therefore something to care about in the midst of a difficult time.”

During her six-month stay in Denmark, another series of serendipitous events unfolded.

Illeborg was on an airline flight to Italy and happened to be sitting alongside Marta Gray, who happened to be a huge tennis fan and just happened to be a close friend of Mater Dei tennis coach Debbie Shaffer. As they chatted during the long flight, Illeborg told Gray about Zarovna’s situation. Naturally, Gray then shared Zarovna’s story with Shaffer.

“My friend called me from Italy and tells me the story about Veronika,” Shaffer said. “And she said, ‘you have to help her. You know everyone. You could help her.’”

So, Zarovna flew across the Atlantic and across the country to Orange County.

But with her arrival, there were plenty of uncertainties.

Where will she live? Where will she attend school? Is Mater Dei an option?

To attend Mater Dei, certain conditions had to be met including proficiency in English. Zarovna was able to meet the requirements and in fall 2022, the tennis standout enrolled in Mater Dei as a junior.

For logistical reasons, a stay with her first host family didn’t work out. Through connections within the tennis community, Zarovna found her way to the home of Janet and Mike Michels of Huntington Beach, where she has lived to this day.

The Michels have been like parents to Zarovna. They’ve helped her acquire a driver’s license and recently, Janet Michels has been guiding Zarovna through the complicated process of applying for college, where the tennis standout will almost certainly receive a scholarship offer.

“I think she’s an amazingly inspirational and resilient person,” Janet Michels said. “I just think of me doing the reverse, going to a country where I didn’t speak the language, and I just wouldn’t have been able to balance as well as she has.”

From being homeschooled in Ukraine, Zarovna has thrived in a more traditional high school environment at Mater Dei, where she gets to represent her school at tennis matches.

“So, here it’s so fun to go to matches,” Zarovna said. “I really like to be part of the team, play for the school and represent the school. It’s really nice.”

Zarovna has also endeared herself to Mater Dei and to her teammates, who chose her as one of the team captains. She willingly switched from playing singles to doubles this season in order to give her team the best chance to win, Shaffer said.

“She really did a great job with making everyone feel included on the team,” added Shaffer. “The thing I love about Veronika is her energy, especially in tennis. She’s all in. She’s a big-time competitor out there. She wants to win for her coaches and her team.”

She is also one of the loudest-cheering members of the student section at other Mater Dei athletic competitions and leaves an impression on nearly everyone she meets. She has a glowing personality,” Shaffer added. “Every single administrator on this campus knows Veronika. They adore her.”

For her achievements on and off the tennis court, Zarovna was just named Monarch of the Month for January. Mater Dei gives the award each month during the school year to honor a young man and young woman for their overall character, citizenship, academic excellence, community service as well as extra and co-curricular achievements. At the end of the school year, Mater Dei selects a Young Man and Young Woman of the Year.