University of Santo Tomas Electronics Engineering student Ernest John “EJ” Obiena qualified as the first Filipino athlete to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after clearing 5.81 meters in a Pole Vaulting athletics meet in Piazza Chiari, Italy on September 3, 2019. He qualified after beating the 5.80 meters qualifying standard for men’s pole vault. This was announced by the President of the Philippine Athletic Track and Field Association Philip Ella Juico.
As a result of his performance in the same competition, Obiena also obtained a score of 1,277 in the world rankings released on September 17, 2019 by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The Filipino pole vault gold medalist soared to the tenth spot worldwide, making him the only Filipino and the highest-ranking Asian pole vaulter on the list.
With this feat, Obiena broke the previous national record of 5.76 meters, which the 23-year-old student athlete also set himself in the 30th Summer Universiade in Naples in July 2019.
Aside from representing the Philippines, Obiena also played track and field for UST in the University Athletics Association of the Philippines and UniGames.
Obiena is currently coached in Formia, Italy by Vitaly Petrov, a renowned Ukrainian athletics coach who also previously mentored the first Olympic pole vaulter to clear six meters, Sergey Bubka, and the current World Record (5.06 meters) and Olympic Record (5.05 meters) holder for women’s pole vault, Yelena Isinbayeva.
“I believe I am expected to perform at the best that I can [for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics] but in all honesty, I have higher expectations for myself. I want to prepare and be in the best shape of my life and be ready for the games,” shared Obiena.
Pole vaulting has been a full medal event at the Olympic Games since 1896 for men and since 2000 for women. It is classified as one of the four major jumping events in athletics.
All in the family
Though he started competing at the age of ten in hurdle and sprints, it was at age 13 when he started competing in the pole vault event. Obiena has been rooted in the sport since his early childhood due to being born to a track athlete family.
“A shared passion is the exact term to define it,” said Obiena of his family’s strong inclination for the sport. He is the son of 1995 Southeast Asian Games silver medalist pole vaulter Emerson Obiena and Jeannete Obiena, a former hurdler for Centro Escolar University. His younger sister Emily Jean, an Industrial Engineering student, in addition to being an award-winning Thomasian researcher, is also a pole vaulter.
Obiena further shared with The Academia, “My family started in the track. My mom and dad met in the track, as my mom was a hurdler back in the day and my dad was a pole vaulter. We were never pushed into it, but I guess as kids we were mostly in the track watching our parents.”
“The track was my playground as a kid, and I have always loved track and field,” he shared.
With his father as one of his role models, Obiena grew interested in the sport himself, saying that “Growing up with a Pole Vaulting father is a lot like having a superhero to watch. As [kids we] looked up to superheroes and their ability to fly. Funny how my father [flew] with the use of a bendy pole.”
“My dad and my coach (Vitaly Petrov) [are the ones who] who opened doors for me, and I hope to one day be in a position that I can do the same,” he added.
Sports could be a ‘family thing’ for the Obienas and his family is also his biggest supporter. “I was and I am (being) funded by my family. They may have not always agreed with my decisions, but I know that at the end of the day they are always behind me. That is the biggest support that they have given me – their unconditional love,” Obiena shared.
It is the unconditional support given by his parents that serves as one of his main motivators for balancing his commitment to both his athletics and his student life. Even as the Faculty of Engineering develops his competence in Electronics Engineering where he is on his fourth year (currently on leave to concentrate on his training abroad, according to the ECE Department), Obiena is relentless in keeping up with his training, which regularly starts early in the morning. On some days, his training sessions occur twice a day.
As a UST athlete, EJ starts his day at 5 o’clock in the morning, drives himself to the track and finish training at 9. He attends classes in UST from 10 in the morning until about 6 or 7 in the evening. He again trains in UST after class, and goes home for dinner and school work.
“I am lucky that UST has facilities. It helps a lot for managing my time as I can do training if I have downtime. I just always bring training gear to school, and when I have time to do my training, I just go to the field or the [Quadricentennial Pavilion] to train, then [go] back to class after,” said Obiena.
To his fellow Thomasian athletes, Obiena expressed, “I have mad respect [for you] as I know how hard it is to balance school work and workouts. Stay strong and keep pushing in both [your] field and classes. We are Student-Athletes, after all: Student first, and then, Athlete.”
The Tokyo Olympics
EJ’s mother, Jeannete, once said that her son is determined to go as far as he can. From Palarong Pambansa to UAAP to international competitions such as the 2015 South East Asian Games where he took home the silver medal for Pole Vault and the Summer Universiade held in Italy in 2019 where he won gold and came up with a new record of 5.76 meters. Now, he did not only keep his eyes on the Olympics, he put the Philippines on the map by becoming the first Filipino athlete to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Competing in the Olympics is the greatest dream that any athlete could set his heart on.
“The Olympics is the highest competition [for any athlete]. The odds of someone making it to the Olympics is so slim that being part of it is an achievement in itself. Competing with the Philippine flag on my chest is always an honor and pride. Whenever I compete, I don’t just compete for myself, I compete on behalf of the Filipino people and the whole nation. This gives me emotions that I can’t explain and everything feels extraordinary,” EJ shared.
EJ trains abroad. Groups such as the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) and the Philippine Amateur Track and Field Association (PATAFA) fund his training at times, but it is his family that consistently foots the bill.
At the training camp in Italy, he starts training at 9:30 in the morning and finishes at 12:30 in the afternoon, and takes another training in the afternoon from 4:00 until 7:30 in the evening. He also sticks to his diet and meal plan to maintain his weight and strength.
For now, EJ’s eyes are on the Tokyo Olympics. He brings with him the values of hard work and faith that he has learned from the University.
Being an Electronics Engineering student, EJ would like to work with bio-enhancement through electronics and robotics, and be able to work with visionaries like Google in the future. However, he says, “I would like to say that I would still be an athlete [in the next ten years] but life is short and I want to live it to the fullest. If I believe that I have done what I can in the field of sport, make an impact to society, then I would pursue my profession,” EJ disclosed.
Obiena competes in Naples in July 2019
[Photos courtesy of EJ Obiena’s Facebook page.]