It’s just been over a month since the end of the Tokyo Olympics, but pole-vaulting star EJ Obiena already has his eyes set for Paris 2024.
It’s why he pushed himself into a grueling set of consecutive competitions right after his 11th-place finish at the pole-vaulting Olympic finals last August. Since then, Obiena has qualified for the Paris Diamond League finals and reset the national record twice, even breaking a 23-year-long Asian record along the way to celebratory cheers in Innsbruck.
“That was very important for me. [But] I think it’s more of a personal kind of thing. I was trying to prove a point to myself that I’m really capable of doing what I set out to do. Because I felt like I fell short of my Olympic debut,” said Obiena, in an interview with ANCX.
Obiena’s high expectations for himself are not a surprise. They come from the long years of hard work and sacrifice that he has dedicated to the sport. Obiena, after all, started pole vaulting when he was just eight years old. Although the decision to focus on pole vaulting arrived only in his later high school years, in a bid to secure a college scholarship, it could be said that the pole has encompassed more than two-thirds of his life.
And it is not something that he is willing to let go any time soon.
Just four years ago, EJ Obiena faced his biggest dilemma when he tore his ACL the day before he was scheduled to fly out to compete in Kuala Lumpur for the 2017 SEA Games. The injury had the potential to end his career, requiring him to undergo a surgery that had him unable to train for six months.
“Life gave me two choices,” shared Obiena previously to CHiNOY TV. “To go back to school, to just focus on that path, to still represent my university in the UAAP, and to just graduate; or, I’ll 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. That was my last hurrah. In a way, I already set my mind. If I don’t make the Olympics, 2019 would have been my last year competing.”
Flash forward to a full quad later, 25-year-old Obiena has become not only the first Filipino pole-vaulting Olympian but also holds the prestigious claim to ranking fifth in the entire world. Back then, in order to reach a decision, he asked himself, “When I grow old, will I be happy with the decision I’ll make?”
Obiena made his decision. But what happens when certain circumstances render that choice moot?
The truth is that all the momentum that Obiena has been carrying for the past year is now suddenly put to a stop due to a lack of funds. Since the government budget that Obiena had was drained at the end of August, he and his team have personally shouldered the expenses for competitions that have contributed to Obiena’s increasing medal tally and new international records.
Although the Philippine Sports Commission has also agreed to grant Obiena P1.5 million for breaking a decades-old Asian record, Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association marketing and communications director explained that certification of the reward may take time. Such funds can not be expected to be relied on for now.
With his season now in pause, Obiena plans to use the time to recalibrate his mindset. To ANCX, he shared, “I’ve been driving around Italy just to unwind, spending some time with my girlfriend, trying to live a bit of a normal life — enjoy it in a way.
“I need a couple of weeks to get my mental game to where it should be. I need to be hungry again to train. At the same time, I cannot lose a lot of time. I cannot just slack off. I need to do my general preparation, build my foundation, so that I’d be healthy enough to compete in the long season ahead.”
Obiena’s next competition will be one for the indoor season early next year. Additionally, while the 2022 World Athletics Indoor Championships are scheduled for March in Belgrade, Serbia, specific dates remain unconfirmed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
With a few months competition-free, Obiena will have more than enough time planning his next course of action toward the Paris Olympics. There is no doubt that he is here to stay.
Ultimately, Obiena loves pole vaulting, being an Olympian, and competing. He once proclaimed, “I’d rather be happy with what I’m doing and enjoying the things I’m passionate about. This is something that I wanted to do, and still want to do, so that’s why I’m still here.”