MANILA, Philippines—Filipino pole vaulter EJ Obiena has competed and won all over the world, lifting the Philippine flag everywhere from Singapore to India to Doha to Italy.
This year, he hopes to stand at the top of the podium at home, when he competes in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games that the Philippines is hosting in November and December.
"I get excited right now," said Obiena, 23, who holds the national record in the pole vault. "I'm just imagining how it's gonna be."
"It's gonna be my first time competing in the Philippines for the Philippines, and that's something," he added.
Obiena is one of the gold medal hopefuls for the Philippines in the 30th SEA Games, and with good reason. The University of Santo Tomas athletics standout is the first Filipino athlete to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games, after passing the Olympic standard with a leap of 5.81-meters in an event in Italy in early September.
Yet when asked how it feels to be among the favorites in his event, Obiena shrugs.
"I'm not really thinking about it. My aim, every athlete's aim is to win the gold. Every time I go to a meet, that's what I wanna do, to be the one winning," he said.
"What I can do is prepare as much as I can and focus on that meet and just try to win. It won't change if I think about this stuff. It wouldn't help me, it wouldn't help my team, it wouldn't help anyone.
"We'll just be stressed," he added. "For me, I just cancel it out and focus on what I need to do."
Besides, Obiena knows he cannot afford to underestimate the SEA Games field. When he missed the 2017 edition of the event, a pair of Thai pole vaulters dominated: Porranot Purahong, who won gold with a mark of 5.35-m, and his chief rival, Patsapong Amsam-Ang, who leapt 5.30-m.
Obiena has been keeping track of Amsam-Ang, as they both competed in the Asian Championships in Doha in April. Obiena won gold with a mark of 5.71-m, while the Thai athlete was fifth at 5.51-m.
"He's really doing good. He jumped 60, 61 or something like that. I'm amazed with this guy, I have mad respect," said Obiena. "He's been through a lot as well, and he's been working hard. I have respect to him. We're both fighting for our goal, but we both have respect for each other."
Having jumped higher this season than his Thai rival, Obiena believes he has the slight advantage at the moment. But he adds, "You never know."
"It's like with swimming," he said. "Until the gun goes off, you don't know. Until the finish line is reached, you don't know who's gonna win."
The athletics events in the SEA Games will be held at the New Clark City Athletics Stadium in Capas town, Tarlac.
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