Bend it like Rembrandt?
Maria Yatrakis ’02 (SFA) was recruited for the Greek Olympic team while she was playing soccer for UConn. As a host nation for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece was automatically qualified to have an Olympic women’s soccer team even though the country didn’t have a particularly strong women’s soccer program at the time, she explains. As a result, the team was recruiting Greek Americans to help fortify the team. Her Husky coach, Len Tsantiris, recommended her for a spot. So Yatrakis, whose parents are of Greek descent, applied for dual citizenship, trained with the team, and headed to Athens.
“It was really exciting, and it was also a culture shock for me,” she says. “Being Greek, you grow up with all the cultural aspects of Greeks in America. But then, when you’re actually there, it definitely had a different cultural environment. Women’s sports in general in Greece weren’t really looked at as something women should be doing. It wasn’t encouraged,” she says, adding that the attitude has changed since then.
Speaking on a Zoom call from Sweden, Yatrakis, 41, is perched on her bed and wearing a navy soccer jacket with her hair pulled back into a ponytail. She says soccer is still a big part of her life and is the reason she now lives in Sweden. “I was playing soccer professionally and then I met my wife and I got stuck here,” she says, laughing. “Call it happenstance, call it luck, it was meant to be.”
That was 14 years ago. Yatrakis is now fluent in Swedish. She and her wife, Lisa, a civil engineer, and their two young sons live in Karlstad, a pastoral town that reminds her of Storrs. There, she played on a professional team and is a goalkeeper coach for the local women’s and high school teams. In her spare time, she is studying to become an assistant preschool teacher.
Yatrakis grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where her father ran a real estate business and her mother was an academic dean at Columbia University. Her parents always stressed the importance of giving back to the community, she says. And, despite her fond memories of playing on the UConn women’s soccer team, when Yatrakis decided recently that she wanted to give back to UConn by sponsoring a scholarship, it was art history that tugged at her heartstrings.
“I have a learning deficit, so school was always very tough for me,” she says. “During my freshman year we had to take an art history class. I took Professor [Jean] Givens’ class and fell in love with art history. From then on out, I took every class that she taught. She was the type of professor I needed for my learning: very structured and very direct.”
“It was important to give back to a program that was very supportive of me,” she says. “I just hope the scholarship gives students who may need a little financial help the ability to pursue art history.”
By Grace Merritt
Photo by Sean Garnsworthy
Yatrakis goalkeeping for Greece against Australia during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games.