Filipino Olympian profile: Major injury, pandemic no hindrance to vaulter Obiena

Manolo Pedralvez

Posted at Jul 20 2021 11:58 AM | Updated as of Jul 20 2021 12:01 PM

Filipino Olympian profile: Major injury, pandemic no hindrance to vaulter Obiena 1
A knee injury that needed surgery then a pandemic that forced him to be away from his family haven't stopped Obiena from working hard to achieve Olympic gold. AFP/file

Because of conflicts in his travel schedule, pole-vaulter Ernest John Obiena was heartbroken to learn that he was no longer one of the Philippine flag-bearers at the opening of Tokyo Olympic Games on July 23 at the Japan National Stadium.

“I proudly accepted the position to raise the flag of the country I was born and raised in, but there are things that are out of control. I’m greatly disheartened to say the least that I was withdrawn to be the flag-bearer for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics due to the new protocols and scheduling conflict,” Obiena said in his Facebook post on July 14. 

Coming from the World Athletics elite training camp in Formia, Italy, the Filipino athlete was scheduled to arrive in the Japanese capital on July 23, barely hours before the inaugural rites scheduled to start at 8 p.m.

Anticipating that Obiena might get stalled at the airport, Philippine Olympic Committee president Abraham Tolentino replaced him with boxer Felix Eumir Marcial, who arrived with the rest of the national boxing squad last July 17, as the country’s standard-bearer. 

“We will still be holding our head high and reppin the red, blue and white with pride. Thank you for all your support through this tough time. It’s what keeps me going,” Obiena said. 

COPING WITH ADVERSITY

It isn’t the first time that Obiena has had to cope with disappointments, often using them as motivation to lift himself up to greater heights in his athletic career. 

An example was 4 years ago before Obiena was about to compete at the 29th Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur.

He was the overwhelming pick to win the gold in the Malaysian capital, boasting 2 years of training at the Formia camp under coach Vitaly Petrov, the former mentor of world and Olympic world champion Sergey Bubka, and also armed in what was then a national record of 5.61 meters. 

He wanted to redeem himself from the runner-up finish in the 2015 Singapore SEA Games after being relegated to the silver with a jump of 5.25 meters behind Thailand’s Porranot Purahong, who took the men’s pole vault event in clearing 5.30 meters.

But on the eve of his departure for Kuala Lumpur, Obiena suffered a grave knee injury in practice at the PhilSports Spots Complex track oval in Pasig, grounding him in Manila to crush his hopes of securing his first SEA Games gold. 

The injury also forced him from debuting at the world championships in London, later that year after qualifying for the meet in clearing 5.61 meters at the Stabhocsprung Classics in Leverkusen in July 2017. 

BITING THE BULLET

While other athletes may have whined and wondered why the injury happened, the 6-foot-2 beanpole bit the bullet, underwent surgery, and went through 7 excruciating months of intensive rehabilitation under the watchful eye of Petrov. 

Keen on returning to action, Obiena was back in harness in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.

But he was far from optimum form and placed seventh in the men’s pole vault with a jump of 5.30 meters in the event won by Japan’s Seito Yamamoto, who bagged the gold with a new Asian Games record of 5.70 meters. 

With grit and talent, Obiena entered 2019 with renewed gusto in pursuing his Olympic dreams. 

Credit this largely to the encouragement of Petrov, who has become a second father to him, and Brazilian Rio Olympic gold medalist Tiago Braz, who has been his regular training partner at the Italy camp since 2016 and treated him like a younger brother.

Campaigning in the European circuit, Obiena showed that he was slowly rounding into shape in topping the men’s pole vault at the World University Games at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples, Italy on July 12 2019, resetting the Philippine mark to 5.76 meters.

Barely a year from his career-threatening injury, the Pinoy vaulter skipped the bar at 5.71 meters on his second try, giving his all to nail the gold in his second jump at 5.76 meters to nip German Torben Blech on the countback. 

OLYMPIC QUALIFYING SUCCESS

Buoyed by that success, Obiena was all pumped up for his second breakthrough of the year, ruling the Salto Con L’Asta men’s pole vault event 5.81 meters on September 3, 2019, surpassing the Olympic qualifying standard of 5.80 meters to emerge as the country’s first qualifier to the Tokyo Summer Games.

He did not do as well a few weeks later at the world athletic championships in Doha, Qatar, missing the final 12 in placing 15th among the participants with a jump of 5.60 meters, 10 centimeters short of the qualifying mark of 5.70 meters. 

American Sam Kendricks, who won the 2017 London edition, bagged his second mint in jumping 5.97 meters while up and coming Swedish-American sensation Armand Duplantis was relegated to second on the countback.

After a grueling European outdoor campaign, Obiena returned home and worked just hard enough in finally bagging his first SEA Games gold, setting a new record in clearing 5.45 meters in the process at the New Clark City Athletic Stadium in Capas, Tarlac in December 2019.

He dethroned back-to-back Thai SEA Games champion Purahong, who was a distant second with a jump of 5.20 meters.

DARK PERIOD DURING PANDEMIC

Intent on renewing his Olympic buildup, Obiena skipped Christmas with his family and went back to his home base in Italy, believing like the rest of the world that the Tokyo Summer Games would be pushing through as scheduled in July 2020

So when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, with Italy among the earliest countries hardest hit by the virus, the Filipino athlete found himself in isolation for nearly 2 months, as Italian authorities imposed a nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of the deadly contagion in early March a year ago. 

With the country six hours ahead of Italy, his father, national pole vault coach Emerson Obiena, recalled how he and his wife Jenneth stayed up until the early hours of the morning to comfort and boost their son’s morale during that dark period.

The upside of his ordeal was the recovery of his ailing back muscles that prompted him to undergo two weeks of therapy in Germany to ease his recurring back spasms, according to the athlete’s father.

Obiena’s initial outing in 2020 looked promising, placing second at the 13th Trivineto athletic meet Trieste, Italy in early August with a jump of 5.35 meters behind Braz, who won a jump of 5.40 meters.

He showed vast improvement in bagging the bronze in the star-studded Monaco leg of the Wanda Diamond League on August 14, clearing 5.70 meter behind Swedish-American sensation and world record-holder Armand Duplantis, who topped the meet with a jump of 6 meters.

Obiena capped his European outdoor campaign on September 19, 2020 with a season-best 5.80 meters to finish third at the Pietro Mennea Golden Gala at the Rome Olympic Stadium won by Duplantis, who broke the 26-year-old meet mark of 6.14 meters set by Bubka with a jump of 6.15 meters. 

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FIGHTING HOMESICKNESS, BOREDOM

Besides the actual competition, Obiena’s mother Jenneth said that his son was also fighting acute homesickness and boredom once the outdoor season was over since Petrov and Braz went on vacation again.

“Only the desire of EJ (Obiena’s nickname) to compete in the Olympics and win the gold has kept my son from quitting altogether,” she stressed, adding that his son rented a car to go around the immediate countryside to kill the time.

The younger Obiena was forced to miss Christmas with his family back home for the second straight year, according to Jenneth.

With the onset of winter in Europe, Petrov moved his training camp to the University of Padua in Italy in early January 2021 in preparation for the Euro indoor season.

The highlight of Obiena’s indoor campaign was on the February 13 Orlen Cup in Lodz, Poland, setting a new national record of 5.86 meters in placing second in a battle royale with 2-time American world champion Sam Kendricks.

Kendricks bagged the gold in clearing the bar at 5.86 meters on his first try while the Filipino bet needed three to complete the jump.

4-MEET GRIND CAPS TUNEUP

Showing his durability and fine physical conditioning, Obiena closed out his Olympic build-up with 4 meets in A single week from June 27 to July 4, resetting his own national record in jumping 5.87 meters to place to place second AT the Irena Szwewinska Memorial on June 29 in Bydgosszcz, Poland.

He capped his pre-Olympic drive with 5.82 meters to place fourth at the Bauhaus Galan on July 7 at the Stockholm Olympic Stadium, barely two days after winning the Stavshoppgala meet (5.81 meters).

Coach Obiena said his son has shown consistency at the 5.80-meter mark and needed to raise his performance to 5.90 meters and above to be at least for a podium finish. 

Given all his sacrifices, the younger Obiena doesn’t intend to take a backseat to anyone in Tokyo, not even Duplantis, whom many consider to have the inside track in the men’s pole vault gold. 

“Win the gold, that’s it, man. That’s really a hard goal to achieve, but that’s the goal,” he said in a recent interview on the Olympic Channel. 

“That’s why I’m doing all this, not to get second, not to get third . . . to win it.”

The men’s pole vault trials will be on July 31, with the top 12 advancing to the finals on August 3. 

Deprived of the honor as national team flag-bearer on the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics, expect Obiena to turn this setback into soaring higher than ever before so that the country’s red-white-and-blue colors are the first to be raised once his event is over.