Olympic pole vaulter Ernest John “EJ” Uy Obiena, 27, is the first Filipino to be given a scholarship by the International Athletic Association Federation (IAAF). Athleticism runs in his genes, with track-and-field athletes Emerson Obiena and Jeanette Uy as parents.
He was only eight years old when he started pole vaulting, but shifted to hurdles, where he competed eventually for his high school, Chiang Kai Shek. He failed to qualify for regional meets in that sport so he shifted back to pole vaulting in his senior year. His father Emerson was his coach until he was 18 years old.
His breakthrough started after training for three months in Italy. In 2014, he broke the national record at 5.01 meters, which he broke himself five times in one year. He still holds the national junior record of 5.21 meters.
In the 2015 Southeast Asian Games, EJ won a silver medal by clearing 5.25 meters. He won gold in the 2019 Summer Universiade with a new national record of 5.76 meters. Although he failed to hit the podium at the Tokyo Olympics, EJ cleared 5.93 meters at the International Golden Roof Challenge in Austria, where he finished first in September 2021.
In July this year, he registered a higher 5.94 meters for a bronze finish in the World Athletics Championship in Oregon. He got the gold medal in the 2022 Southeast Asian Games, with a record of 5.46 meters.
EJ attributes his success in the sport to his strength and resilience in overcoming stigma and to balancing his heart and mind as he attempts to bring glory to the Philippines through the sport that he loves.
In the middle of back-to-back schedules during his short break in the Philippines before returning to Italy for another round of intense training, Obiena sat down for the last episode of #BetterToday conversations in this year’s Power Move Project, an initiative of PLDT Inc. and Smart Communications Inc. to promote mental resilience through sports.
“To maintain a strong mental headspace, I think it’s a matter of knowing how hard I’ve worked and that I’ve done everything in my capacity going to that day—all the training that I did throughout the year, all those days that I threw up on the side of the track,” EJ shared. “I deserve to be there. I deserve to compete with the best, and to be one of the best in the sport.”
His conviction and commitment to the sport have been validated multiple times with his record-breaking performances in his latest tournaments, beating other veteran pole vaulters.
“There are a lot of challenges in the sport. Being Asian is one thing, because Asians are not known to excel in pole vault. These kinds of stigma did affect me, but I learned to embrace that challenge. I make sure that I win the competition and prove that stereotype is not true,” he shared.
Obiena started in the sport through his father, who brought him to Rizal Memorial Stadium when he was just a kid. Now, with years of experience under his belt, the pole vaulter also said that his approach to the game is simply winning.
“The best EJ as an athlete is going to be the best person that he is,” Obiena said. “Therefore, before becoming the best athlete, I need to be a better person. From getting knocked down to getting back up, to knowing the best approach and mindset, there are a lot of things I can improve on.”
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As the No. 3 pole vaulter in the world, Obiena shared that his biggest dream is to hopefully bring the country glory, especially in the upcoming Paris Olympics in 2024.
The young pole vaulter also tells the youth to find something that they truly enjoy, but to also endure the hardship that they are bound to face. “Achieving something historic does not come overnight. You need time and a lot of effort. There’s going to be a lot of pain, but stay with it. Focus and keep striving. Next thing you know, you’re closer to your goal than you ever were today.”