Athletics

Filipino eagle EJ Obiena: In it to win it 

He was the first Filipino to qualify for Tokyo 2020, now he's beating Olympic champs like Thiago Braz and Renaud Lavillenie. Read how pole vault giant Sergey Bubka gave him the chance of a lifetime

By Ken Browne ·

At 18 years of age Ernest John (EJ) Obiena had already gone higher than anyone else in Philippine pole vault history.

Jumping since he was six years old with his dad, EJ has become one of the most exciting young talents in arguably the most exciting athletics discipline on the circuit these days.

This Filipino high flyer competes regularly with miracle man Mondo Duplantis and beat Rio 2016 Olympic champion Thiago Braz and London 2012 champ Renaud Lavillenie at the Ostrava Golden Spike meet in September 2020.

A 5.74m vault that day at the World Athletics Continental Tour in the Czech Republic also put Obiena ahead of reigning world champion Sam Kendricks, sending Filipino hopes soaring of an Olympic medal at Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021.

A rapid rise has put Obiena in world class company.

Obiena's 5.01m jump in 2014 topped Edward Lasquete's national record from the Barcelona '92 Olympics of 5.0 metres, and at 18, it was only the beginning.

That same year he broke his own record multiple times going 5.05, 5.15, 5.20, 5.21, and in 2015 took home silver from the Southeast Asian Games with a 5.25 clearance.

In 2016 he went over at 5.47m at the Philippine National Games, winning with a broken pole.

But in 2019 Obiena really took flight winning gold at the Universiade Games (5.76), the Asian Championships (5.71), the Southeast Asian Games (5.45), and a 5.81m personal best clearance in Chiara, Italy on September 3, 2019 qualified him for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021.

It all may never have happened if Obiena hadn't got that one random message and met pole vault G.O.A.T. Sergey Bubka.

When Sergey Bubka changed EJ Obiena's life

"I was 17 or 18 at the time, a young pole vaulter without any great results to my name," he told Spikes in May, "but that text from my national federation would change the course of my career."

The message read 'Sergey Bubka is in town'.

"Athletics may not be a big sport in the Philippines," continues EJ, "but my father had been a pole vaulter, my mother a hurdler, so I knew all about the Ukrainian: 35 world records, six world titles and an Olympic gold medal. A living legend."

"I asked if I could meet him, hoping to get a photo and to have my shirt signed. In the end I got a whole lot more."

What the eager young athlete expected to be a quick meet turned into an hour-long conversation and an offer of a scholarship.

"At the time my best was 4.90m," explained Obiena, "but he told me if I could jump five metres I’d qualify and he'd endorse me for an IAAF scholarship to train at the World Pole Vault Centre in Formia, Italy."

A chance of a lifetime that he couldn't let pass. "I was motivated AF," Obiena writes on his personal website. He cleared 5m and was on his way to Italy.

Vitaly Petrov: Coach of champions

In Formia, Obiena was suddenly surrounded by the best on the planet.

"The facilities blew my mind. I saw world-class athletes every day, a who’s who of track and field, and I was completely star struck."

"We learned every day from Vitaly Petrov, who coached champions like Yelena Isinbayeva, Thiago Braz da Silva and Giuseppe Gibilisco – in addition to Bubka."

"What can I say about Vitaly, he is the best," said Braz about the Ukraine coach when he won gold at the world juniors in 2012. Suddenly, EJ had him in his corner.

Petrov took over Obiena's training in 2016 but it wasn't until 2019 that he spent practically a full year training under his guidance in Italy. The results show the benefit of being trained by an elite coach, and Obiena's dedication to the process.

And while the 2019 Doha Worlds were a disappointment - Obiena finished 15th of 35 with a best 5.60m jump and failed to advance to the final - Petrov constantly reminds him of where he was when he started training for real as a 17-year-old.

And that there's so much more to come.

Highest Olympic pole vault jumps

The highest pole vault jumps in Olympic history, including Thiago Braz Da S...

Ernest Obiena: Family

But not all the credit can go the Ukranian wonder-worker Vitaly Petrov. Obiena had a head start from birth.

They say that if you want to be a great Olympian then you have to choose your parents well, and EJ was very lucky. Both his mother Jeanette and father Emerson were track and field athletes.

Emerson represented the Philippines in the Southeast Asian Games, Jeanette ran hurdles for her college and his sister holds pole vault national records too.

Little EJ grew up wandering around the side of a track. From a young age he was fascinated by the pole vault, a little boy watching in wonder from below at people flinging themselves five metres high in the air before a glorious freefall.

Obiena wanted to try so young and nagged his father who told him that poles weren't made small enough for him and he had to wait.

But a determined little Ernest wasn't going to be stopped - he used metal rods as poles and landed on the pads, that first sensation of freefall that becomes an addiction for all pole vaulters.

Dad was his first athletics coach, and after trying his hand at sprint and hurdles, EJ decided that pole vault was to become his focus.

Now an older, more confident Obiena who'll be 25 at the Tokyo Olympics is ready to challenge Mondo, Braz, Lavillenie, Kendricks, and anyone else who gets in his way of the podium.

"I can be the best"

“It’s been a long journey so far," Obiena told Digital Journal in August 2020.

"Training in Italy with coach Vitaly has helped me refine all my techniques. Back home, it was just about the rudiments. But now it is totally about the scientific and advanced methods of progressing to being the best I can be in my sport.”

Obiena is a big fan of the new technical and digital advances pushing innovation and advancement in his sport.

"It's cool. I studied electronic engineering," "so I am really into technology. I'm trying to have fun with it. This time around, we used technology and what we have so that we can compete with the other athletes around the world and it's fun."

He won a silver medal in the “Who’s the Finest Pole Vaulter?” virtual event in August post COVID19 lockdown with a 5.60 jump, only Olympic champ Thiago Braz went higher with a season-best 5.70m.

Obiena has nothing but praise for his training partner Braz:

"Thiago is good. It is always fun to train with an Olympic champion... he's fun and he's a really good guy. To be honest, I've trained with him for a long time, so I've known him even before he was an Olympic champion."

"Thiago is the same humble person before and after his win at the Olympics." - EJ Obiena

EJ Obiena at the Tokyo Olympics

But while he's having fun, there's a new focus to Obiena's jumping, a new killer instinct and belief that he can be the best.

“The thinking now is I go into a competition confident that the gold medal is meant for me. The rest of the jumpers can decide who can win the silver and bronze medals,” Obiena said to Gulf News in August 2020.

He's already beaten Olympic and world champions, now he has Mondo Duplantis in his sights.

“I have competed with Armand (Duplantis),” he continued.

“He’s good and he is an inspiration no doubt. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be the best. I am here because I deserve to be here, and I am here for a medal. This medal is never going to be easy, but I need to just believe that I am among the best."

"This can come only through hard work on and off the field and through training. Everything that I have needs to be channelised into energy to achieve this one goal."

"I am going to make it happen.”