Graduate Spotlight ’23: Sophia Slovenski

Sophia Slovenski stakes her territory at the pole vault pit in the Costello Sports Complex.
“Vault is…you’re literally flying. I don’t know how else to describe it,” Slovenski said.

Standing alone atop a podium is a great feeling for any athlete. But Sophia Slovenski gets an extra charge knowing she helped someone else get there. It’s part of a legacy that will last long after her graduation this spring from the University of Southern Maine.

The records that Slovenski set in her collegiate track and field career made her a role model to a lot of girls with championship dreams. The responsibility she felt toward them led her to open a chapter of Strong Girls United on campus last year.

Strong Girls United is a nonprofit organization that promotes participation and retention in girls’ sports. Mentorship is a big component of the program. By spending time with college athletes, elementary and middle school girls see a path to their own future.

“It’s just a fun way to introduce young girls to college athletics and the importance of continuing playing sports,” said Slovenski.

Her enthusiasm for the program soon spread to other student-athletes. The women’s lacrosse team hosted a Strong Girls event before their game on Wednesday, April 26. Girls from kindergarten through eighth grade practiced their skills while the players cheered them on.

Sophia Slovenski at 2021 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships 2021 NCAA OTF - Event 39 - Women Javelin
Before taking up javelin, Slovenski honed her throwing arm by playing dodgeball.

Role models were in abundant supply during Slovenski’s childhood. Her father, grandfather, and uncle all coached track at the college level. And while attending a youth track camp run by her uncle, Slovenski got hooked on the events that would define her college athletic career.

Slovenski quickly developed a reputation with the other campers as a fearsome opponent at dodgeball. Her throws were like laser beams. Recognizing her potential, her coaches swapped out the dodgeball with a javelin and something special clicked into place.

“I kind of feel like an Amazon warrior, is how I describe it on the javelin. I feel like I’m spear hunting,” Slovenski said.

As much as javelin felt like a natural progression, Slovenski’s skill at pole vault came as a happy surprise. She overslept one morning at camp and missed her ride to hurdling practice. The only option left was pole vault. She went grudgingly, but after a few jumps, she didn’t want to stop.

Sports were a constant through several life changes. Slovenski was born in Watertown, Massachusetts. But just before she started kindergarten, the family moved to Toronto and stayed there through her high school years. She returned to Massachusetts for a year of prep school while her family relocated again, this time to York, Maine.

Slovenski enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick for the next step in her education. But as her career goals changed, she decided to transfer to USM and pursue a degree in Exercise Science. That evolution continued after a class in holistic health convinced Slovenski to change her major to Health Sciences.

“I just really love the idea of using the resources that the body already has to heal,” Slovenski said. “Love conventional medicine, but I like the slower side of it, seeing how you can use yourself and natural remedies to heal.”

As she hit her academic stride, Slovenski’s athletic output reached new heights. In February 2020, she cleared 3.82 meters to set a school record for women in indoor pole vault. She topped that a year later by winning the Division III National Championship in javelin with a throw of 48.21 meters.

The win was a shock. She had never thrown farther than 45 meters to that point. In the previous months, she endured first COVID-19 then appendicitis. And she entered the championship tournament feeling a twinge of discomfort in her throwing shoulder. Despite all of that, Slovenski knew the moment the javelin left her hand that she had beaten the odds.

“I just dropped to the ground and, I swear, tears felt like they were shooting out of my eyes,” Slovenski said. “That was just the best moment and I was so, so excited.”

Her tears of joy were soon followed by tears of pain. Later that summer, Slovenski joined her friends for a swim at Shaw Park in Gorham. They took turns jumping off a bridge into the water. Slovenski made the jump dozens of times over the years. This time she landed awkwardly on her right shoulder and felt it shatter.

The damage included two labral tears and a torn rotator cuff. She needed surgery to put it all back together. The doctors also removed a bone spur for good measure. While the shoulder healed, she learned to do everything with her left hand from writing to eating to brushing her teeth.

Slovenski returned to the track as soon as she was well enough. She threw herself into new events like hurdles and long jump, but she refused to give up on her specialties.

Even two years later, her right arm hurts too much to throw the javelin, so she continues to build strength and coordination with her left arm. She has come a long way since hitting her head with her first throw in competition. Her pole vaulting is once again strong enough to win first place in this year’s Little East Conference Indoor Track and Field Championship.

“I feel like, at this point, I’m the best captain I can be, if that makes sense,” Slovenski said. “On the field, I haven’t set a personal record in two years. I’m hopeful. I think I can set one.”

Pole vaulter Sophia Slovenski hurls herself over the bar.
Slovenski set a USM record with a vault of 3.82m.

Crucial to her comeback was the support Slovenski got from her entire track family and her coaches in particular. She praised Assistant Coach Mike Drummey for making her a better pole vaulter and a better person. And her appreciation of Head Coach Rob Whitten goes beyond his expertise to also include his sensitivity.

Whitten was there to hang the medal around her neck when Slovenski won her national championship. But he’s also there for the quiet moments away from the cheering crowds. He creates the kind of environment where Slovenski feels safe to test her limits and release her emotions when they build to a head.

“I was talking to (Athletic Trainer Chris Sanborn) and he’s been through this a bunch and he’s, like, ‘Just know that you are being tested because you are strong.’ That’s something that I take close to heart,” Slovenski said.

As her senior year winds down, it’s the comradery of her teammates that Slovenski will miss the most. Her favorite memories at USM are largely concentrated around the end of each spring semester when classes are over but a few weeks still remain in the track season, giving Slovenski and her fellow athletes the run of the campus.

Slovenski’s transition from member of the track team to fan is made easier by her confidence in her freshmen teammates. She singled out Riley Reitchel as one to watch at javelin.

For the next year, Slovenski plans to fill the time that she previously devoted to track by expanding her work with Strong Girls United. She’s also looking into graduate programs to continue the training she needs to become a naturopathic doctor.

Slovenski will not walk across the stage to accept her Health Sciences B.S. at Commencement on Saturday, May 6. The Division III New England Championships track meet is being held that day in Springfield, Massachusetts. And Sophia Slovenski doesn’t miss a chance to compete.

Sophia Slovenski stands at the main entrance to Costello Sports Complex.
Slovenski has her sights set on a career as a naturopathic doctor.