The Flying Slovenskis
“My grandfather, Gus Slovenski, was a coal miner in Pennsylvania during the Depression,” explains Bowdoin College track coach Pete Slovenski. “His family moved from town to town depending on where there was coal mining work. One time when they got behind in rent they had to leave in the middle of the night, and they moved to Cherry Tree.
“When my dad (Walt) was 15, he decided to start working in the coal mines rather than return to school that September. There was a town fair that included running, throwing and athletic contests and my dad won several contests in a row. The local high school football coach came up to find out who he was."
“'Are you going to high school next month?'” the coach asked.
“'No. I'm going to work in the mines,'” my Dad told him. “'I don't really care for school.'
“'You should stay in school,'” the coach said. “'Let me talk to your parents.'
“So the coach went to my dad's house that evening and visited with my Dad's parents. He told them that their son should stay in school. He also promised that he would help my Dad make it in school.
“My dad went back to school the next month and starred in football, basketball and baseball for four years. He earned a football scholarship to Syracuse University, where he once broke a record by returning a punt 98-yards for a touchdown. Athletics transformed my dad's life.”
Pete's dad moved to Maine in 1952 where he served as head track coach and assistant football coach at Bates College. Not surprisingly, his son Pete watched lots of track meets.
“Of all the events, the pole vault seemed to be the most fun,” said Pete. “All track events take talent, but pole vaulting takes courage and it's complicated.”
Drawn to the mental and physical challenges of pole vaulting, Pete took up the sport. He demonstrated real talent, vaulting 13 feet, 10 inches in 1974, a Maine state record at the time. He went on to Dartmouth where he was an All-Ivy League pole vaulter, once reaching the height of 15 feet.
Pete Slovenski never bragged about his vaulting exploits to his three sons as they were growing up.
“I didn't say five words about pole vaulting,” he laughs. “You have to be independent to be a pole vaulter because pole vaulting is such a solitary activity. I thought my oldest son Steve would prefer soccer, tennis or basketball.”
In high school, Steve joined the track team. He was mainly a runner, although he began to try his hand at pole vaulting, reaching a most respectable 11 feet 6 inches with little coaching by the end of his sophomore year. Pete advised Steve that he should choose between running and pole vaulting if he really wanted to be a pole vaulter. Steve chose pole vaulting and asked his dad to coach him.
During his senior year in 2005, Steve Slovenski vaulted 14 feet 7 inches, another Maine state record for the vaulting Slovenskis. He went on to Princeton where he majored in mechanical engineering and vaulted 15 feet 7 inches. Steve currently teaches at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania.
Pete's second son David, whom Pete describes as “contrary and independent,” began going to track camp at age 12 and went right to the pole vault. A natural at the sport, David completed the Slovenski hat trick, breaking the Maine state pole vaulting record with an extraordinary jump of 16 feet 9 inches in 2008.
David won the Nike National High School Championship with a jump of 16 feet 4 inches. He followed his older brother to Princeton where he also chose to major in mechanical engineering.
At Princeton, David has attained a height of 17 feet 4 inches, an Ivy League record.
“David is trying to qualify for the Olympic trials,” says Pete. “The qualification for the trials is 18 feet, which is a long way to go. Making the trials would be just about like making it to the Olympics for him and rank him among the top 20 vaulters in the nation. “
Pete's third son Mike took up pole vaulting at age 13, although he has many other interests, especially music. Like his brothers, Mike is a top student and pole vaulter, reaching a height of 15 feet 6 inches at the time of this article. Mike will take his many talents to Harvard in the fall. The Harvard track coach is no doubt delighted to have landed a vaulting Slovenski who sports an “H” rather than a “P” on his shirt.
One might think that in today's world of in-your-face braggadocio by helicopter parents, Pete Slovenski would be trumpeting his son's successes far and wide. One would be wrong. Pete Slovenski is old school. In fact, he co-authored a book entitled “Old School America.”
“When I was growing up, the parents, teachers and coaches didn't care if you won or lost, but how you played the game," Pete said. "You had to be honest, brave and self-reliant. You had to learn how to work and show good sportsmanship. I don't care if my sons jump 10 feet or 17 feet as long as they're honest, brave, self-reliant, good workers and good sports.”
The Slovenski family legacy extends, then, from the Depression-era Pennsylvania coalmines to the pinnacles of achievement in a most demanding sport and coveted spots in the nation's premier institutions of higher learning. That said, they remain firmly grounded in the values that truly matter.
(In the summer, Pete Slovenski runs the Slovenski Camps in the Sebago Lake region. The Camps offer everything from training in cross-country and pole vault to beach volleyball and SAT prep. His three sons work on the staff. FMI, slovenskicamps.com)