Figures: Ernest John Obiena
Ernest John Obiena’s breakout season came in 2019 when he strung together a trifecta of victories at the Asian Championships, Southeast Asian Games and finally the Naples 2019 Summer Universiade. In Italy, he soared to a new Philippines national record of 5.76 meters at the FISU flagship event.
E.J. persevered and delivered under pressure, overcoming early adversity, to win a Summer Universiade gold medal. He edged Torben Blech of Germany, on the basis of fewer misses over a lengthy competition.
"I wasn't able to take-off during the warm-ups – I was having an off day right from the start," Obiena tells Brian Pinelli in the latest edition of the FISU University Legends Series.
Left to right: Torben Blech (GER) wins silver medal, Ernest John Obiena (PHI) wins gold medal, Ben Joren Broeders (BEL) wins bronze medal at the Napoli 2019 Summer UniversiadeObiena battled through a difficult competition and the bar was eventually raised to 5.76-meters with only he and Blech still alive.
"I thought just give it all you got and I run down the runway – I couldn’t hear myself thinking with the crowd clapping and the moment I soared over that bar I was finally in the lead," Obiena recalls, of what became the winning vault.
"We were both exhausted, my last attempt my legs weren’t with me anymore – I think it was like my 17th jump and normally I take like eight.
"Every time we meet, we joke let’s bring back that energy from Napoli," Obiena says. "I made a good friend and Torben and I sometimes meet in Germany." And what about E.J.’s victory celebration along the shores of Italy’s magnificent Amalfi Coast?
"Having pizza after the competition was nice – all the pole vaulting guys went out right after the event, walked around Naples and I think we got back quite late, but I’m not sure what time," Obiena recalls. "It was one heck of an experience."
Obiena’s hard-fought victory at Stadio San Paolo catapulted his athletic career skyward to greater heights.
The 25-year-old Obiena proudly represented his native Philippines at the Tokyo Olympic Games, qualifying for the men’s pole vault final, but finishing a disappointing 11th. Nevertheless, it was a learning experience that lit a fire beneath him.
Ernest John Obiena at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
"Tokyo was the biggest event for me this season and it was the lowest I jumped all season," Obiena said. "It was my first Olympic Game and it was an awesome experience though."
Redemption and Asian Games record in Austria
Obiena bottled his frustration and uncorked it at the Golden Roof Challenge in downtown Innsbruck, on Sept. 12. Competing at a street event in an electric atmosphere under the evening lights, Obiena launched himself to victory with a personal best jump of 5.93. He broke the more-than-two-decades old Asian pole vault record.
Ernest John Obiena at the Innsbruck Golden Roof Challenge 2021
"Made it on my last attempt in Innsbruck – it was a clutch attempt that made my heart beat so fast," Obiena says. "The moment I hit the mat, I thought you’re capable of doing this, but why weren’t you able to do this in Tokyo.
"It was a bittersweet moment, although sweeter for me."
Based upon the record-setting Austrian event and a second place showing at a Diamond League meeting in Paris prior, Obiena ascended to sixth-place in the world pole vault rankings.
E.J. comes from a family of pole vaulters – his father Emerson is a former Southeast Asian Games medalist and his sister Emily is a junior national record holder. Off the pole vault runway, Obiena studied electronic engineering at the University of Santo Tomas at home in Manila.
"Academically, I always loved it, especially the laboratories, but not a fan of the textbooks," Obiena says, of his days as a student-athlete. "I believe electronic engineering is very hands on and hopefully I’ll be able to use what I learned, but I’m not rushing it."
Meeting the legend
One of the game-changing moments of E.J.’s young career was an unexpected meeting in the Philippines, in 2014, with pole vault legend, six-time world champion and 35-times world record holder, Sergey Bubka.
“It was supposed to be a five or ten-minute meet and greet and it ended up being like three hours,” Obiena recalls. “It was fun to meet your idol and now I can call him, one call away and I can get some tips from the best that has ever done it.”
Ernest John Obiena and Sergey Bubka
The friendly and fruitful meeting with the 1988 Olympic champion led to a trip to Italy, where Obiena still trains alongside Bubka’s former coach Vitaly Petrov.
"I can never thank Sergey enough for opening these doors for me – I wouldn’t have been in Naples, I wouldn’t be where I am now," Obiena says about his encounter with the Ukrainian pole vault legend. "It is still as magical now as it was then, when I was kid."
The Philippines has won fourteen medals in Summer Olympics history, including the nation’s first gold – in weightlifting in Tokyo. Obiena sets his sights on increasing his country’s medal count in Paris 2024.
"Badly, badly, I really want that – I know it’s achievable based upon what I’ve already been able to do. And with Philippines on my back, it makes it all little bit sweeter and more exciting."