EJ Obiena looks to rise to the occasion in Tokyo

Photo from AFP

TOKYO — Emerson Obiena realized early that he had a second pole vaulter in the family when his son EJ was barely three.

“Bata pa si EJ nagpakita na siya ng curiosity sa pole na gamit ko pagkatapos kong mag-ensayo,” says the elder Obiena, 56, a double-silver, double-bronze medalist in multiple stints as a Philippine representative in the Southeast Asian Games.

At the Rizal Memorial Track and Field Stadium, the young boy would fiddle the pole used by his father, which could measure three to five meters long, and attempt to lift it the way Emerson did.

“Tapos, gustong-gusto niya, yung ihahagis siya sa kutson; nagtatatalon don,” recalls Obiena, who has a personal best 4.95 meters in pole vault, a mark EJ would surpass with 5.0 meters as a junior to qualify for an International Athletic Amateur Federation scholarship in Italy.

“Akala ko noon, lahat nang naka-five meters, kasama sa scholarship,” says Obiena. “Yun pala, si EJ lang.”

Emerson, whose father is Chinese but has maternal roots in Quezon and Samar, says he started in track and field belatedly at 24 “and peaked at 35,” kicking off his athletic career as a marathoner in 1984, moving to sprints and ultimately decathlon, a combined 10-event discipline which developed from the ancient Greek Olympics pentathlon.

Pole vault is one of the events in decathlon, perhaps the most draining, physically-exhausting competition in the field of sports.

“Don na ‘ko sa pole vault nag-focus pagkatapos,” says Obiena, who used to compete in the San Miguel Corporation Olympics as a rank-and-file at SMC’s Magnolia branch.

He also tried his mettle against some of the best in the continent, once finishing sixth place in a 4 As meet in Fukuoka, Japan.

Emerson ultimately wrapped up his athletics career to train EJ, who had shot up in height during his middle teens after overcoming some kind of natural growth phase.

“Ang ganda ng takbo ni EJ nong mga 13 years old siya, tapos biglang sumama nong nag-14 siya; parang napapatid sa sarili niyang paa,” says the elder Obiena as he remember thinking, “Ano bang nangyayari dito kay EJ? Na-overtrain kaya siya?”

All his fears and apprehensions were allayed, however, when a foreign acquaintance who is a high authority on the matter, assured the father that there was nothing wrong with his son.

“Tinanong niya ‘ko kung sumasakit daw yung sa ibaba ng tuhod ni EJ. Sabi ko, ‘oo.’ Sabi niya, ‘don’t worry, that’s because your son is growing. In a few months, he will be okay.’”

True enough, the below-the-knee pain was soon gone. More importantly, EJ grew inches and subsequently took off to launch his own pole vault career.

Obiena, 25, became the first Filipino athlete to qualify to the Tokyo Olympics after hitting the Olympic pole vault standard of 5.81 meters at a meet in Chiara, Italy in 2019. 

Ranked No. 6 in the world, Obiena has improved his season best to 5.87m at a Polish event early this month, which also reset the national outdoor record. 

He finished fourth at the Bauhaus-Galan Wanda Diamond League Meeting in Stockholm, Sweden last July 4 – a tournament that served as a preview of the Olympics. 

Obiena has since been based in Formia, Italy for the past years, training under Ukrainian coach Vitaly Petrov.

The men’s pole vault qualifying round is on Saturday, July 31 at the Olympic Stadium, with the final on August 3.

And right there with EJ Obiena will be his first coach, his father, Emerson, carrying the picture of his three-year-old son taking the first few bounding steps toward an Olympic leap of faith.