EJ Obiena on Piercing Through His Goal One Winning Leap at a Time
You tuned into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics telecast randomly. You sighted a Philippine flag, which means a Filipino is representing the country in that event. One of the athletes competing seemed familiar. No, you recognized him too well as an avid sports fan. Bonding through an athletics event you’re very familiar with, you cheered your heart on with your family.
Minutes later, you observed him arguing with an official. He had you in awe. Goosebump. Your heart raced faster than his in the final attempt. He failed to clinch through, yet you feel proud. And you felt hope glimmering inside of you for the country.
That you were me. I was there watching our lone representative in the pole vault event try to rise above the rest. And even though he was unsuccessful at that moment, I know that the Philippine Pole Vault will come a long way with him in the lead. Piloting the aircraft is Ernest John ‘EJ’ Obiena—leaping high and soaring beyond for the goal.
A Promising Launch in Mid-Air
An acclaimed athlete like EJ is not made overnight. It's a continuous process from when he learned how to hurdle that high bar at age four or five. Nor is the hard work needed to earn that status a walk in the park. But to be where he is now, EJ has been guided by his father—his first mentor—to attain the position he is grateful for.
Working his way to becoming one of the world's greatest pole vaulters at rank three and an Asian record holder entails a lot of sacrifices. He forwent ventures that ordinary people his age would usually do. In his words, "I think I'm a very boring person." Trading his social life for a strict training schedule assisted him in remaining focused and giving his all in every session.
The disciplined and principled upbringing of EJ resulted in that iconic pole vault moment in the Summer Olympics of 2020. Being seasoned under a prominent team in Italy since he was just 18 years old, EJ literally fought for his way in that Olympic debut.
He might not have cleared the 5.80-meter bar then to penetrate the top 10, but he earned the respect and support of many sports fans worldwide. In that courageous outing, EJ showed the world that he could leap to greater heights. And true enough, he has captured golds and broken records since then, and we believe his career is far from over.
On Elevating the Philippine Pole Vault Scene
EJ Obiena may not be the first Filipino Pole Vault Olympian, but his contributions to the sport are unparalleled. Pushing the game as a household name from breaking records left and right, it’s just right to call him a legend. This legend is on the rise now, and he is busy putting the country on the global pole vault map.
But before EJ came to the limelight, Filipinos were only exposed to popular team sports and far less in individual games. More so, the pole vault is hardly noticeable in the line of events in athletics. Yet, this sport perfectly embodies the Olympic motto of Hendiatris Citius, Altius, Fortiu (faster, higher, stronger).
A pole vault consists of a run and a leap with a pole to cross over the bar. Though the term "fast" refers to running speed, it is not a dominant factor in the sport. Rather, it might concern your agility in how quickly your body can shun away from the bar to not touch it and keep it from falling. Meanwhile, as one of the jumping events, the higher refers to the meters you cleared a bar. The higher the number in three attempts, the better and more chances of winning there are. Lastly, the stronger part is the strength needed to bend that fiberglass or carbon-made pole to leap over the bar from a few meters away.
With the specialized equipment required for the sports, only a few are given the opportunity to train with ease. Pole vault might come off as a privileged sport considering that Filipino athletes lack proper funding for a holistic practice. It goes to show that EJ’s representation in the world sports scene is deemed significant and should not be looked down upon for being an unpopular sport. To boot, EJ’s 2020 Tokyo Olympic stint is the first since Edward Lasquete’s 1992 Barcelona.
This young blood is ready to run and hurdle any bar to get to his rightful throne. Adding to the roster of legendary athletes who made names in their sports unbeknownst to many, EJ is here to wave the Philippine flag and rise even further.
EJ's stellar showing for the Philippine pole vault has inspired many youngsters to achieve the same feat. Needless to say, helping hands are much appreciated in escorting the sport to the top and cementing its place. Hence, EJ's message to aspiring pole vaulters is to dare and have fun.
"I think when you enjoy something, you become passionate about it, and that passion would become your driving force to those hard times. If it's your calling, enjoy it and be passionate about it."
When hard work and passion come hand in hand, you will surely enjoy the sweetness of a goal achieved. Like EJ's dedication to pole vaulting and determination to overcome adversity, his goal of winning for the country has been crossed off his list numerous times.
The Highs and Lows of EJ’s Pole Vault Career
After the Tokyo 2020, EJ approached the following season with a winning mindset after knowing that he had a chance to level with the world's best. He did not just attend each meet to play the game. He was there to win, and he is keeping the streak.
In a span of three weeks, he has won six titles. He defended his Southeast Asian Games podium finish, as well as soared higher than the world's number one in the Brussels Diamond League. With a historic bronze-medal win in the World Athletics Championship, he pierced through the top 3 world rankings with a full heart.
He shares, "It's good to win. It's very addictive to win. Of course, it matters who the competitors are in the competition. But for me, the important thing there was to win. I think that made it very sweet. On that day, I was at the top of my game and I was able to do what I do. In my opinion, those were the happiest few minutes, and having won my first time in the league is a core memory to remember. "
Most athletes go through a journey that includes training at a young age and sacrificing many things to achieve their goals. EJ, like many others, has grown accustomed to this, but his athletic career begs to differ from his mundane life.
When a dispute surfaced between him and the association, everything went dramatic and his accomplishments were overshadowed by the accusations. Despite this, he was able to maintain his top form for his competitions through a solid support system. Backing up EJ in this adversity is his Ukrainian pole vault coach, Vitaly Petrov.
"I think that's my biggest asset in all of those days. To give a little bit of credit to myself, I also just try to compartmentalize and believe the truth will come out. And I think that was enough for me to have at least enough peace of mind to actually be able to do what I needed to do," he quips.
Indeed, to be at the top of your game and achieve your goal, you don't only have yourself. You need pillars to strengthen you through the journey. For EJ, he found them in his team—coaches, family, friends, and good samaritans.
Clearing Bars for Greater Heights
After an impressive season, EJ felt humbled by the honor, and he was able to regain the confidence he once lost during his Olympic stint. Through each victory, he was able to teach himself to believe in his capacity a little bit more.
"I was questioning if I was built to compete and to live in these conditions where the pressure’s high, the stakes are high. So, I was able to do that. It definitely made me confident that I am, indeed, one of the best in the world. I am, indeed, capable of winning. And I am, indeed, here where I should be. I belong in this circuit of the best pole vaulters around the world," he notes.
Leaping from a good year to the next, EJ says the word "maintain" cannot be found in his vocabulary. From here on out, he intends to raise the bar higher and rise above the rest. Coach Petrov instilled in EJ's mind to keep going forward by taking one step at a time. There is always room for improvement, and EJ is taking every opportunity to better himself.
An Olympic podium finish is what every athlete dreams of. Without a question, it is also EJ’s target in the years ahead. But, before the Philippines can qualify again and eventually achieve that honor, EJ is and has always been focused on winning each moment.
There will be good and bad days. EJ is undertaking each competition with a fresh perspective from the last. He does not linger on the previous match's feelings because with him is a new battle to conquer, a memory to cherish, and a winning outlook to materialize.
EJ refuses to believe that he’s peaking at this point. Who are we to question that if he knows he could show us more? EJ could only promise to work as hard as he could to stay at the top of his game and elevate the Philippine pole vault further. With a long way to go before Paris 2024 to bid for our first Olympic pole vault medal, EJ will prepare as much as he can to clear another milestone, one leap at a time.
The awe-inspiring year of EJ Obiena felt like only a teaser for his biggest break yet. It's evident that he isn't stopping and stooping anytime soon. With an unwavering synergy of skills and character, EJ is geared for something bolder and higher. Do not lose sight of this rising legend in his own right, because he is coming for greater heights.
Words by Kryzzle Nova Cailing
Photography by Rxandy Capinpin
Art Direction and Interview by Joe Andy
Styling by Dave Arden
Grooming by Muriel Vega Perez
Special Thanks to VMG Asia & Vania Edralin