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How Sergey Bubka set EJ Obiena on pole vaulter's Olympic dream

Filipino pole vault champion Ernest John Obiena was introduced to the world of pole vault at a young age.

According to the Stand for Truth Olympic Series, Obiena was 8-years-old when he first attempted to pole vault.

“I started with my dad. My dad was a pole vaulter before. He was the one who introduced me to the sport. He was my mentor until I was 18, you know? He was my coach,”  Obiena said.

However, the Filipino athlete chose to focus on hurdles instead until high school. Because he could not reach the regional meets, Obiena switched to pole vault before college.

“I was hoping to get a scholarship into a really good school. The big schools in the Philippines are not as cheap, you know. They’re not very cheap and I would say that was one of the reasons I decided to do pole vaulting and focus on it going to the last few years of my high school years,” he said.

Obiena said he knew he had not reached his full potential at that time. However, this changed when he found out that the legendary Ukrainian pole vaulter Sergey Bubka was in the country.

He said he was hoping to take a picture with the pole vaulter, or if he would get lucky, get an autograph from him.

Far more than what he was hoping for, Obiena was able to converse with Bubka.

At that time, he could only jump 4.19 meters. He said that his idol told him he could qualify for the International Association of Athletics Federation to train at the World Pole Vault Center in Italy.

That same year, he broke the record and flew to Italy to train. There, Obiena met another legendary Ukranian pole vaulter Vitaly Petrov, who is also known as a coach of several gold medalists in the Olympics.

While juggling his training in Italy and his studies at the University of the Santo Tomas, Obiena’s form gradually improved.

Like all great stories, however, he met his fair share of obstacles.

After winning a silver medal at the 2015 Singapore Sea Games, Obiena was set to challenge the 5.70 meters to qualify for the Rio Olympics in 2016. This did not push through as his training was hindered after his pole broke and they were unable to immediately find a replacement.

In 2017, he then suffered from an injury while in a competition in the country.

“I was given basically two options, you know. Either I stayed in the Philippines and finish my studies in UST and go my way. Or I’ll shoot for the impossible and try to be there in the Olympics,” he said.

“During that time I had a long six months to kind of ponder and think about why I’m doing this, and why would I wanna keep doing it.”

Obiena, however, chose to persevere.

Since then, he has won a gold medal at the 2019 Asian Championship, another gold at the 2019 World University Games, a gold medal at the 2019 Chiara, Italy Meet, where he qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and finally, a gold medal at the 2019 Philippine Sea Games.

“I love the sport that I do. I love my country. I love the way I’m training. I love the way it challenges me. It makes me a better person,” he said.

After returning to Italy to continue his training in 2020, Obiena became stranded in the foreign country, far from his family and loved ones, due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Obiena has not returned home to the Philippines for a year and a half.

“Training is not the hard part. It’s being separate from the people that you love and not being able to see them as often as you want like when I’m in the Philippines. The same goes with my family, my girlfriend, my friends,” he said.

But he said the hardship is all part of the sacrifice to obtain the first Olympic gold of the Philippines.

“I don’t want to think about how bad it is. I’m only focused on the goal. As you said, everything is going to be worth it when I have that gold in my hand,” he said.

Obiena is seen as one of the athletes with a high chance of getting the first gold medal for the Philippines in the Olympics.

For him, however, every athlete who perseveres enough can get a crack at the gold.—Joahna Lei Casilao/LDF, GMA News