Before he made the jump that got him into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, EJ Obiena has had to clear many other hurdles in the course of becoming the Philippines premier pole vaulter. He remembers one other jump he had to overcome half a decade ago, when he met pole vault great Sergey Bubka.
The Ukranian world record holder was then in the country to meet former Philippine Amateur Track and Field Association (PATAFA) president Go Teng Kok. “It was all God-given coincidence,” Obiena shares. “We were about to head out for training when we got a call that Mr. Bubka is in Manila. We called Mr. Go to ask if we could meet Mr. Bubka and he allowed me.”
You may also like:
At that time, Bubka was the vice president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). “He told me that he would endorse me to train in the World Pole Vault training Center if I jump 5-meters,” the University of Santo Tomas standout recalls. “When I jumped 5-meters indoors I got sent to Formia where I met my coach Vitaly Petrov.”
Obiena is the first Filipino to be given a scholarship under the IAAF. His time in Italy with Petrov, who coached Bubka, Olympian Yelena Isinbayeva, and world titlist Giuseppe Gibilisco, was challenging, but elevated his game further. “Training with Coach Vitaly is just amazing and different. I was always the last in the group but he gave me the same equal focus,” Obiena says. “He made me who I am now and I owe him a lot as he has coached me more that pole vaulting.”
Ernest John Obiena was born in November 17, 1995 to his mother Jeanette, a former hurdler for Centro Escolar University, and Emerson, who is a national pole vaulter turned coach. The latter won a silver medal at the 18th Southeast Asian Games in the same year his son was born.
Naturally, the younger Obiena would grow up hanging around the track, meeting with athletes, and growing an interest in the sport. He claims that his parents never pushed him into it. “I could do what I wanted but I saw pole vaulting as an opportunity for me to acquire a scholarship in high school. That pushed me to train and focus on it,” he says.
But pole vaulting wasn’t his first event. When he started out in high school in Chiang Kai Shek College, he competed in 100- and 400-meter hurdles, but switched to his current event in his last two years there. “I saw that there is greater chance for me to get a scholarship with pole vaulting,” he says. “I was never fast or naturally gifted, which pushed me to go with technical events. There is more work to be done and be developed there, which I saw I could do.”
His passion for his chosen specialization burned even more when he first went to Europe. “I saw how big and famous track and field is, particularly pole vaulting. I rubbed shoulders with the greats of the greats. From their thoughts and experience, I got hooked and was just amaze on how this sport changed their life.
Of course, his sports journey is not without challenges. Two years ago, before flying off to the Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur, he tore his ACL in a training session. “I was devastated and was hopeless. I wanted to compete and give back to the country. I was in really good shape,” he says. “This was devastating for me because it wasn’t just one competition on the line it was my whole career banking on my broken knee.”
But Obiena did bounce back, and in a big way. He qualified for next year’s Summer Games—so far the only Filipino to do so—earlier this month in Chiara, Italy. He surpassed the qualifying standard of 5.81 meters—a national record—to secure his berth.
For the pole vaulter, trying to conquer a hurdle is an exercise in trying to calm and center himself at the task at hand. “I feel really nervous before a jump. It’s nerve wrecking pressure during big competitions,” he shares. “I usually roll my shoulders and relax and think of what movement I should be focusing on. It helps me set a task for my brain to focus on and distract it from focusing on the pressure.”
While the pressure was high in Chiara, Obiena was in high spirits, and was taking things one bar at a time. “I felt good during the day and I know I am capable of jumping high if I stay calm and execute what I have been doing in training,” the 2019 Summer Universaide champion says. “When the bar went to 5.81 it gave me pressure knowing that it’s the Olympic standard.” He told himself to just stay calm and do just do what he has been doing in training. It took him two attempts to re-center and focus on the task at hand, and not at what it might mean after.
As the sizeable Italian crowd—and millions more online—saw, Obiena’s third try was a success. “It was happiness and felt that all the hard work that I have done is worth it. My childhood dream is finally materializing,” he says. Afterward, he “called the people who have helped me reach where I am now, and gave them the good news that we have finally made the Olympic standard!”
This included the likes of current PATAFA president Philip Ella Juico, who he says has been fighting for his cause, his coaches, and the Lafferty family who has been supporting him since 2015, who stuck with him through injuries.
While his berth to Tokyo is secure, the road going there is still long and unsure. Obiena is still in the process of talking to officials to ask for funding and request for training. His next immediate target is the world championships in Doha, Qatar.
Though, Obiena says, what people can bank on is his dedication to his chosen field, his inherent competitive fire, and the goal he has set for himself. “I always try to outwork everyone else and when coach says 10, I see beyond it and try to do more than that,” he shares. “I hate losing in any game. When I do something its either all in or nothing. If I would train, I would train 100 percent. My goal is to always be the best.”
Apart from your parents, do you have other sports idols?
Sergey Bubka and Thiago Braz. They have influence my life decisions. When I don’t know what to do I just think what would this two men do.
How can more Filipinos do well in track and field?
Making it more popular and known to kids. We have the talent and knowledge to create world class athletes, but we are very limited in number. If it weren’t for my parents’ influence, I would probably have been a basketball player because of my size. Athletics is not well-known sport. When the sport gets the recognition it deserves, there would be more interested in trying it. One of them might even be a future world class athlete.”
What's the best advice your father has given you?
Give your 100 percent so when the time comes there is no regrets.
Please share some of your favorites. Favorite city?
Small and rural cities are my go-to.
The Torch Hotel in Qatar.
Favorite clothing brand?
I’m biased here. I would say NIKE, but I’m not currently sponsored by them, and I’m currently looking for a brand sponsor. I also test their prototype spikes shoes for my event.
How do you destress?
I like to take long drives to provinces.
How do you relax after a competition?
I’m still trying to figure this out. I try to just take a long shower after and let my mind float.
The last book that you’ve read?
The Adversity Advantage, by Erik Weihenmayer.
I have a few. GTR, Aventador, Rolls Royce
Dream dinner guest?
What’s on your bucket list?