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How EJ Obiena became the dark horse to land a podium finish in pole vault

By JOAQUIN HENSON, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 27, 2021 5:24 pm

Sports has always been second nature to the Obiena family. It’s like Emerson, Jeanette and their two children EJ and Emily were born to play. In his prime, Emerson was a national athlete in pole vault and Jeanette specialized in hurdles at Centro Escolar University. They actually met on the field and their romance blossomed beyond the track.

Both EJ and Emily were drawn to sports because they often watched their parents at practice. Emerson bagged a silver at the 1995 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Chiang Mai and a bronze at the 2005 edition in Manila. So he was easily the kids’ role model. But EJ was a hurdler before concentrating on pole vault.

Father and son, national athletes: Emerson Obiena was 47 and EJ was 16 when this photo was taken in 2011. 

“At eight years old, hurdles ang focus niya pero he also played pole vault,” said Emerson, 57. “Pasingit-singit during my training as a national athlete. There was no pole vault competition for boys his age so it was not serious.”

At Chiang Kai Shek High School, EJ ran the 100 and 400-meter hurdles. Then he found his calling in pole vault with Emerson as his personal coach. EJ enrolled in Electronics Engineering at UST on an athletic scholarship and dominated pole vault in the UAAP, making hurdles his secondary event.

“Jeanette understood and supported his choice,” noted Emerson as EJ picked his father’s sport over his mother’s. 

EJ’s younger sister Emily also starred in pole vault, holding the Philippine junior record of 3.4 meters and representing the country at the 2017 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.

EJ was supposed to join Emily in the Malaysian capital but suffered an ACL injury in his left knee during practice the day before his departure.

At the SEA Games, Emily placed fifth while EJ underwent surgery and did therapy for six months. Emerson said Emily has since moved on and recently earned a degree in Industrial Engineering at UST.

EJ wouldn’t let his injury turn his dream of someday competing in the Olympics turn into a nightmare. “During rehab, I thought about my future,” he said. “Will I work hard to get stronger or will I walk away from sports? I told myself if I didn’t try for the Olympics, I would later regret it. So it motivated me to work harder.”

EJ’s Olympic dream was stirred by Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA) president Philip Juico, who arranged an athletics scholarship through Ukrainian sports legend Sergey Bubka to train at the pole vault center in Formia, Italy, in 2014. Bubka took the gold in pole vault at the 1988 Olympics and is a six-time world champion. He endorsed EJ to his own coach Vitaly Petrov who lives in Formia.

The family that plays together wins together: Emerson and Jeanette with EJ and Emily

For several years, EJ trained nearly months at a time in Formia but after qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics and claiming the gold at the SEA Games in 2019, he stayed put in Italy to work with Petrov. The pandemic made it easier for EJ to decide to be away from family for nearly three years.

He kept busy competing in Europe, traveling alone to Poland, Sweden, Germany and wherever the road led to building his stock as an Olympic contender. Slowly but surely, EJ rose to No. 6 in the world rankings heading to Tokyo and is now considered a dark horse to land a podium finish.

Emerson flew to Tokyo from Manila last Friday evening to reunite with EJ who arrived from Italy a few hours earlier. He’ll act as an assistant coach. From when Petrov took over as EJ’s coach, Emerson had been his mentor but there was never an issue in transition.

“Pumupunta kami ni EJ sa Formia tuwing end of schoolyear, roughly 2 1/2 months kami under coach Vitaly’s guidance,” said Emerson. “Pag-uwi ng Pilipinas, itutuloy ko ang sinimulan training sa Formia. Ganoon lagi taon-taon at naintindihan namin ang method na itinuturo niya. Noong natapos ang scholarship grant ni EJ, nag-decide kami na patuloy siya mag-training sa ilalim ng gabay ni coach Vitaly.”

Emerson said his advice to EJ was to embrace the opportunity of learning from Petrov who trained 2016 Olympic gold medalist Thiago Braz of Brazil. “Payo ko sa kanya, napunta tayo sa puntong ito dahil sa mga pagkakataon pinag-adya,” he said. “May dahilan kung bakit natagpuan natin ang mga tao na naging instrumento upang magsanay sa pangangalaga ni coach Vitaly. Advice ko sa kanya na mag-open up siya at makipagkaibigan, hindi rin kasi ganoon kadali sa sitwasyon niya na banyaga na ibang lugar.”

This year, EJ set a new Philippine outdoor record with a leap of 5.87 meters. Since 2014, the 25-year-old Tondo superstar has reset the Philippine standard 10 times. His personal indoor best of 5.86 is way above Emerson’s 4.93. The father couldn’t be prouder of what his son has achieved.

After the Olympics, no matter what happens, Emerson said EJ will finish the outdoor season in Europe. “Pagkatapos saka pa lang kami maguusap tungkol sa mga competition sa susunod na taon. Willing ang UST na tulungan siya sa kagustuhan niya na matapos ang kanyang kurso.”

The Asian and SEA Games are scheduled next year, and in 2024, Paris beckons for another Olympic appearance.

Banner photos from EJ Obiena’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. Right photo by @kowalskyphotos