Events, Lifestyle, Profiles, Stories

CHY List: EJ Obiena, the Olympic-bound Pole Vaulter

Sketch by Lexter Ang

With the arrival of 2021’s Year of the Metal Ox, CHiNOY TV has put together its inaugural CHY List, which aims to annually celebrate the achievements of 10 Chinoys who have all accomplished great things, inspired others, and made significant contributions to their respective fields and beyond. 

We will also be releasing individual features to highlight the accomplishments of each of this year’s CHY List honorees. Today, we shine the spotlight on incoming Olympian Ernest John “EJ” Obiena. 

Passionate and dedicated to his pole vaulting sport, Obiena has spent the last few years smashing records, boundaries, and competitions to reach the top of his field.

Here are just some of the accomplishments of this world-class Chinoy athlete:


1. He is the first Filipino athlete to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

EJ Obiena once made a promise to himself that if he did not qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, 2019 would have been his last season as an actively competitive athlete. Back then, he remembered thinking, “When I grow old, will I be happy with the decision that I’ll make?”

The thought to retire had crossed Obiena’s mind many times in the past, most especially when he tore his ACL just a day before he was scheduled to compete in Kuala Lumpur for the 2017 Southeast Asian Games (SEA). The injury then had not only caused him to miss the competition but also put him on an athletic hiatus for six months. 

After recovering, Obiena wondered if his dream to compete in the Olympics was worth it. In the world of sports, after all, reaching for the top meant dedicating years of effort and sacrifice without the guarantee of success. For Obiena, this meant being away from home and disrupting his studies as a full-time college student at the University of Santo Tomas. 


Though Obiena missed the 2017 SEA Games, he won the gold in its 2019 edition held in the Philippines. Source: Ernest Obiena Official Facebook Page


“Life gave me two choices: to go back to school, to just focus on that path, to still represent my university in the UAAP, and to just graduate. Or [to] try to risk it and just go for what I’ve been wanting to do, which is to represent the Philippines in the Olympics and hopefully try it out,” said Obiena.  

In the end, the choice to leap towards the sky was made. In 2019, Obiena successfully qualified for the Olympics when he cleared a then-personal best of 5.81m in Chiara, Italy. Since then, he’s been flying higher than ever.


2. Sergei Bubka, the pole-vaulting G.O.A.T., personally vouched for Obiena.

Obiena recognizes that success comes from opportunities and that one such opportunity came from a fortunate meeting with one of the greatest pole-vaulting athletes of all time. 

“I found out from a text message. I was 17 or 18 at the time, a young pole vaulter without any great results to my name, but that text from my national federation would change the course of my career,” said Obiena. “What did it say? That Sergei Bubka was in town.” 

Sergei Bubka is considered by many to be the best that the pole-vaulting world has ever seen. His more-than-impressive resume includes an Olympic gold medal, six world titles, and 35 world records, among other achievements. 

Knowing all of this, Obiena asked to meet him. And though he only hoped initially to get a photo and autographed jersey from the “living legend,” Obiena ended up receiving a lot more. 

“Out of the blue, [Bubka] suddenly asked, ‘How high do you jump?’” shared Obiena. “I said 4.95m. He told me that the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) [has] a scholarship program for athletes like me, and if I jump five meters within the year he would personally endorse me to be in it. I was motivated AF.”

Following that serendipitous moment, Obiena cleared the 5m and began a new chapter in his life.


3. He is on a prestigious scholarship in Italy with the best in the world.

When Sergei Bubka endorsed Obiena to the IAAF scholarship as he said he would, Obiena found himself standing in a new reality: the World Pole Vault Training Center in Formia, Italy. 

It is there where Obiena now finds himself learning from Vitaly Petrov, who has coached several World and Olympic champions including Thiago Braz de Silva, Giuseppe Gibilisco, Yelena Isinbayeva, and Bubka himself. 

“Training in Italy with coach Vitaly has helped me refine all my techniques. Back home, it was just about the rudiments,” explained Obiena. “But now it is totally about the scientific and advanced methods of progressing to being the best I can be in my sport.”


Source: Ernest Obiena Official Facebook Page


In 2019, when Obiena spent almost the entire year away from home, results of podium finishes and Olympic qualifications started to show. Wanting to keep the momentum going, Obiena decided to stay in Italy the following year.

Even with the ongoing pandemic, he established a routine: He wakes up at 7:30 AM to prepare breakfast and check e-mails, then he trains from 9:30 AM to 12:30 PM, stopping to have lunch. After an afternoon of rest, he resumes a practice time of 4 to 7 PM. 

Despite the delays with the Olympics, Obiena continues to work hard. “When I first heard that the Olympics were postponed, it was a bit of a bummer. I felt a little lost: What I am going to do now?” he said to Spikes. “But as Vitaly said: ‘It doesn’t change anything. You’re an athlete. Your goal is to get better each day in training, so if the Olympics are this year or next year or in four years, it doesn’t matter.”


4. He has the potential to win Olympic gold.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed the Olympics, Obiena has been passing the time by racking up medals and breaking national records. 

Just the other day (February 13, PHT), Obiena cleared 5.86 meters after three tries, winning not only the silver medal at the 2021 Orlen Cup in Lodz, Poland but also once again breaking the national record which he had set a little more than a week prior. 

In past competitions, Obiena has proven himself able to defeat some of the field’s strongest contenders, including reigning world champion Sam Kendricks of the USA, as well as Olympic champions Renaud Lavillenie of France and Thiago Braz of Brazil. 

“The thinking now is I go into a competition confident that the gold medal is meant for me. The rest of the jumpers can decide who can win the silver and bronze medals,” said Obiena

With every event, Obiena is in it to win. The Olympics are no different. “I am here because I deserve to be here, and I am here for a medal. This medal is never going to be easy, but I need to just believe that I am among the best.”

“Everything that I have needs to be channelized into energy to achieve this one goal. I am going to make it happen.”


Curious about the other CHY List honorees? For the complete inaugural CHY List, check out the article here.


In addition to celebrating the achievements of the Filipino-Chinese, CHiNOY TV also actively supports the Chinoy creative community. This year’s CHY List photos have been produced in partnership with Chinoy sketch artist Lexter Ang. For more of his works, check out his Facebook page Sketch with Lex!

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