Filipino pole vaulter EJ Obiena breaks Asian record, nets gold medal

by Jay Domingo, PDM Staff Writer

Ernest John Obiena in Belgium, August 2023 | Photo Filip Bossuyt via Wikimedia Commons

NEW YORK – Ernest John “EJ” Obiena continues to rise as a star soaring high on Friday, February 23, earning a new Asian indoor record with his gold medal victory in the Istaf meet at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin, Germany.

All eyes were fixed on the lone figure standing poised at the runway’s end, a spear of bamboo held aloft as he aimed for the sky. The 28-year-old World’s No. 2 pole vaulter, who ruled the Jemorial Josip Gasparac in Croatia last Wednesday, February 20, cleared 5.93 meters, surpassing the 5.92 meters record of Kazakh Igor Potapovich established in February 1998.

A runner-up in last year’s Istaf, Obiena defeated Tray Oates of the U.S. and Robert Sobera of Poland. He set his previous best at 5.91 meters at the Perche Elite Tour in Rouen, France, in March 2022.

Obiena tried to post a new personal of 6.03 meters but failed in three attempts. He then cleared the 5.82 meters bar to bag the gold medal after Oates failed the first three attempts at 5.82 meters.

Oates skipped it to use his remaining two attempts at 5.88 meters but was unsuccessful and settled for the silver with his 5.75 meters clearance. Meanwhile, Sobera took the bronze with 5.66 meters as he tried to clear 5.75 meters but failed.

Obiena’s next tournament will be at the World Indoor Athletics Champions in Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom.

Humble beginnings

The 6’2″ Obiena was not born with a silver spoon but with a father who nurtured a love for athletics in his son. Growing up in Tondo, a district known for its challenges, EJ found solace in the rhythm of running and the thrill of pushing his limits. He discovered pole vaulting almost accidentally, drawn to its unique power, grace, and mental focus blend. It was not easy. Bamboo poles, makeshift training grounds, and limited resources were his reality. Yet, with unwavering determination and the unwavering support of his family, EJ honed his craft, his talent blossoming in a sport that few Filipinos even understand.

EJ Obiena, the first Filipino to qualify for 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with father, former pole vaulter Emerson, and mother, former hurdler Jeanette, after a presscon with the Philippine Sportswriters Association on October 2019 | Photo Jess M Escaros Jr./PNA via Wikimedia Commons

His first national title in 2016 marked a turning point. Medals followed each one, a testament to his dedication and resilience. He shattered national records, his name becoming synonymous with excellence. The quiet boy from Tondo was transforming into a national icon, inspiring a generation of young athletes to dream big.

But the road to the top was not without its hurdles. Injuries threatened to derail his progress, and funding constraints often cast a shadow on his dreams. Yet, EJ persevered. He trained harder, seeking opportunities abroad and embracing the challenges of living and competing in foreign lands. He learned from the best, his skills evolving alongside his character.

Historic moment

Then came the 2019 Asian Athletics Championships. The Doha, Qatar sky witnessed a historic moment as EJ cleared 5.71 meters, a new Asian record and a golden triumph for the Philippines. The nation erupted in celebration. EJ’s journey, once a personal quest, had become a symbol of national pride, a testament to the power of hard work and unwavering belief.

The 2020 Olympics were a dream realized. Standing amidst the world’s elite, EJ soared, his spirit undeterred by the pressure. He didn’t bring home a medal, but his performance cemented his place as a global contender. He returned home a hero for his athletic prowess and the hope he ignited in millions.

The journey did not stop there. In 2022, EJ carved his name in history again, securing a bronze medal at the World Championships, the first Filipino to achieve such a feat. His victory rolled around the world, inspiring athletes from developing nations.

Advocates for young athletes for better training facilities and support

But EJ’s story transcends the medals and records. He is a role model, using his platform to advocate for better training facilities and support for young athletes. He is a beacon of hope, proving that grit and determination can achieve dreams, no matter how audacious.

Today, EJ stands tall as a world-class athlete and a symbol of Filipino excellence. His story is one of defying odds, of chasing dreams with unwavering passion. He is a testament to the power of human potential, reminding us that even the sky isn’t the limit when we dare to reach for it.

As he prepares for the next challenge, the 2024 Olympics, the world watches with bated breath. Will he soar even higher? One thing is sure: EJ Obiena’s journey has just begun, and the sky is no longer the limit. He is destined to inspire, break barriers, and write his name in the annals of sporting history, not just for the Philippines but for the world.

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