Take it from noted American fitness and conditioning coach James Lafferty — pole vaulter Ernest John Obiena is the country’s “best athletics medal candidate” in the Olympic Games in the past 37 years.
In Obiena, the Philippines has the “best athletics medal candidate since going back to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics during the Project: Gintong Alay days,” said Lafferty, a corporate executive who was once based in the Philippines and now stays in the Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, last Thursday.
He was referencing the time when Project: Gintong Alay of the 1980s ushered in a local sports revival, producing the likes of outstanding runners Lydia de Vega and Isidro del Prado, and boxer Leopoldo Cantancio.
De Vega, Del Prado and Cantancio were members of the national contingent of 15 male and 4 female athletes who saw action in the Los Angeles Games.
An athletic consultant with the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association since 2015, Lafferty made the remarks about Obiena during the association’s online press launch of the Fineguard National Half-Marathon Virtual Challenge, which his company is supporting.
“This is what the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association has in Obiena. Under Dr. Philip Juico, it has the greatest Olympic medal chance,” added the American, who legally adopted a Filipino orphan into his family and began his professional career as a fitness instructor of US multinational firm Procter & Gamble.
The PATAFA is the sport’s national governing body, and Juico is its president.
A graduate of psychology and physiology at University of Cincinnati, Lafferty, who was a high school athletic coach, was the personal mentor of former Asian women’s long jump champion and 4-time Southeast Asian Games gold medalist Marestella Torres-Sunang.
He is credited with whipping Sunang, who was coming off from childbirth, back into shape, enabling her to qualify and compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics Games.
Lafferty has taken Obiena under his wing, organizing and bankrolling an online pole vault competition last August featuring the Filipino athlete, training partner and Brazilian Rio Olympics gold medalist Thiago Braz, Polish European indoor champion Pavel Wojciechowski, and US indoor champ Matt Ludwig.
“I talked to all of those 4 other guys regularly and they would not be surprised to see EJ (Obiena’s nickname) on the podium in Tokyo. Now that’s not guaranteed and we all know that anything can happen, but he is in the game," he said.
Lafferty said he regularly keeps tabs on Obiena, who spent Christmas in 2019 with his family in Dubai, and noted that he was impressed by what he has seen in the latest videos of the Pinoy vaulter while training in Italy.
Together with Ukrainian coach Vitaly Petrov and Braz, the country’s first Olympic qualifier moved recently to a new training camp in the city of Padua, 489.1 kilometers north of the Italian capital of Rome, just before the start of the European indoor athletic season at the end of the month.
“EJ is at record levels of speed and fitness. I have seen his vaults on video last week. I mean I am not going to put numbers here to pressure on him,” Lafferty said, “but I believe you’re going to see national records fall indoors in the next couple of weeks.”
Obiena holds the national record of 5.81 meters, setting the height in ruling the Salto Con L’asta pole vault meet in Piazza, Italy September 2019 that earned his trip to the Tokyo Olympics by surpassing the qualifying standard of 5.80 meters.
In 2020, he had a season-best jump of 5.80 meters by bagging the bronze medal at the Pietro Mennea Golden Gala meet at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome last September to cap his European campaign.
“Because he (Obiena) is in top form, I can easily say that if you held the Olympic Games today, EJ would be in the top 3 or 4 in terms of fitness and vaulting,” Lafferty said.
“EJ is a wonderful young man. The entire (Filipino) nation owes him a debt of gratitude because he has given up his whole life to bring Olympic glory to this country.”
He noted that the pole vaulter has been out of the Philippines for over a year and spent Christmas last month virtually all alone at the World Athletics elite training camp in Formia, Italy when most of his training partners, including Braz, had gone home for vacation.
The last Filipino vaulter to see action in the Olympic Games was Edward Lasquete, who competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympiad, while Miguel White was the last local track and field bet to win a medal in the event, a bronze in the men’s 400-meter hurdles at the 1936 Berlin Games.