EJ Obiena could quite possibly be the most high profile Olympic athlete of the Philippines who will compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, rivalling even Hidilyn Diaz, who is already an Olympic silver medalist.
On one hand, this should not be surprising given his talent as a pole vaulter. But on the other, his fame is striking given that his sport falls way below the national spotlight usually given to more traditional sports such as boxing and basketball.
Track and field events and by consequence their athletes are normally not well known to the casual Filipino, even one as talented as the 25-year-old Obiena.
Obiena, a second generation pole vaulter, is a bemedaled athlete who also holds the Philippine indoor record, one that he reset four times in two months, reaching heights of 5.62 meters, 5.72m, 5.80m, 5.86m.
While Obiena’s talent is never in question, his desire to keep going to reach the dream of Olympic gold waned due to the global pandemic that first hit China early 2019 and set off a global shutdown early in 2020.
“Two weeks after I learned that the Olympics was postponed, I was lost. But my coach just said to take it day by day and focus on improving the smaller things”, Obiena said.
In fact, Obiena was in China and only got out of the country three days before it closed its borders. However, he was stuck in Italy when it went under lockdown. He trains at the elite Olympic training center in the sleepy town of Formia, which is a couple of hours away from the capital Rome.
In fact, Obiena trains with fellow Olympians including current Olympic gold medal holder Thiago Braz of Brazil, whom the Filipino has the deepest respect for.
While no one wishes the pandemic existed, Obiena saw it as a time when he matured as an athlete and a person.
“The pandemic kind of helped shift the way I see things. Keep myself a little bit more motivated to train and see the bigger picture, that hey, I have more time to prepare, I have more time to be efficient. To be a better athlete and a better person”, Obiena added.
“It gave me time to grow. That’s one more year on my age, so I should be one more year “wiser””, the Olympian quipped.
Obiena has also said that while the pandemic is still hard, it has nevertheless become a little bit easier. The pole vaulter said that he keeps busy in his apartment sketching and tinkering with automating some parts of his apartment such as lights and doors.
On his Olympic chances, Obiena is thankful for the chance to perform and go for that elusive gold.
“I want to say I have a shot basically. And having that is all I can ask for and need in order to perform.”, Obiena said.
“I respect all my fellow Olympians, I know what they’re capable of and I know what I’m capable of. As I said, everybody has an equal chance, especially the guys who will be in the final. Everybody is a threat.”, Obiena added.
On his plans after the Olympics, Obiena kept it simple.
“I’m going to have a vacation, man. It’s been way too long since I took a break. It depends on whether I have competitions after the Olympics then maybe I’ll go back here to train. But after the season’s over, I just need to take a break and spend some time with family. There are bigger things than sport”, Obiena said.
Obiena also added a message to all Filipinos.
“It’s been a series of bad news, so hopefully the Olympics will bring good news to the people which I believe sports is able to do: Bring a nation’s spirit together and lift its people up.”
“I hope the team we send could provide a series of good news and some kind of boost. Hopefully, we’ll get that elusive gold and boost the morale of everyone in the Philippines”, Obiena added.
The Olympians the Philippines will send to Tokyo definitely need the support of Filipinos. Who knows, maybe we can will Obiena even just a couple centimeters higher, which just may be enough to bag the country’s first gold.