Flaming Hoop Vault

Pole vaulter Dave Slovenski ’12 likes to invent new athletic challenges for himself and the Tigers’ other vaulters.
Pole vaulter Dave Slovenski ’12 likes to invent new athletic challenges for himself and the Tigers’ other vaulters.

Pole vaulters are the wild men of track and field, incorrigible risk takers who have never met a rope too high to swing from, or a motel balcony too far from the pool to leap from. But what could be more dangerous than hanging upside down from a spaghetti strand of fiberglass as it bends almost double, and waiting for it to fling you up to a handstand at the top?

For pole vaulter Dave Slovenski ’12, that’s not a rhetorical question. It’s a challenge. He and his brother, Steve ’09, once wrapped big metal rings in oily rags, set them on fire, and vaulted through the flaming circle. Perhaps you’ve seen them on YouTube, jousting on unicycles, using vaulting poles tipped with boxing gloves as lances.

“Dave’s always thinking up creative new things for the other vaulters to do,” says track coach Fred Samara.

Dave Slovenski does 60-meter dashes on his hands. He pulls himself up ropes while hanging upside down. To develop spatial awareness, he practices dives off mini trampolines into the pole-vault pit.

“Jadwin is just a big jungle gym for him,” chuckles Marc Anderson, who, as the Princeton sprints coach, has watched the brothers’ antics from a safe distance.

As crazy and dangerous as this all might sound, it is serious training for an event that demands speed, strength, and the superb body control of a gymnast. “Someone once told me I was flirting with danger,” says Slovenski. “I told them I don’t flirt; we’re going steady.” And while he made sure his dad wasn’t there to see that flaming vault, he allows, “I always take safety precautions appropriate for my skill.”

In December, Slovenski cleared 17 feet, 7.25 inches, an Ivy League indoor record. This spring he hopes to break the Princeton outdoor record of 17 feet, 9 inches, set 19 years ago by Kevin McGuire ’93. Slovenski has a shot at qualifying for the Olympic trials.

The Slovenski brothers grew up surrounded by track and field, with a father and grandfather who were collegiate track coaches. The three Slovenski boys — Mike is a freshman at Harvard — lived in a Tom Sawyer world of tree climbing, rope swinging, and playing what Dave calls “classic American childhood games” such as flashlight tag. Every summer, the family runs weeklong camps on the pole vault, cross country, track, and dodgeball for little kids. With the brothers serving as counselors, summers pass in a blur of high-octane games.

When Steve arrived at Princeton, he found there were no opportunities to play such games. So he and Mark Stefanski ’09 founded the Colosseum Club, dedicated to doing what Steve calls “awesome stuff on weekends,” as an alternative to Prospect Street. Dave, a mechanical engineering major, is club president. The club’s mailing list has 350 students, and about 35 show up regularly to play dodgeball or conduct Nerf fights.

The club runs Princeton’s annual dodgeball tournament, which drew nearly 3,000 players in April. Dave doesn’t worry about getting hurt playing these frivolous games. “Nothing I do,” he says, “could be as dangerous as the pole vault.”

Merrell Noden ’78
Merrell Noden ’78

Extra Point explores the people and issues in Princeton sports. 

Merrell Noden ’78 is a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated and a frequent PAW ­contributor.