Pole vaulter and athlete Ernest John “EJ” Obiena faced the biggest dilemma of his life when he tore his ACL three years ago during practice, just one day before he was scheduled to fly out to represent the country in the Southeast Asian Games (SEA) in Kuala Lumpur. After surgery, he could not jump for six months and his athletic career was on the line.
“When I grow old, will I be happy with the decision that I’ll make?” the 24-year old athlete recalled thinking to himself when he was injured. After recovering, he wondered if his dream – to represent the Philippines in the Olympics – was worth it, especially with the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics looming, or if he should resume being a full-time student at the University of Santo Tomas, where he currently studies. “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, 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 Olympics, 2019 would have been my last year in competing,” he confessed. “I was ready to accept that, but God had different plans and He made me qualify, and now I’m here in the circuit. It’s showed me that I really wanted this.” He wanted this dream, and an injury wouldn’t stop him from achieving it.
That dream began when he was a young student at Chiang Kai Shek College. He was introduced to the sport through his father, who was also a pole vaulter. Despite the similar profession with his dad, it was not easy for the younger Obiena to convince his parents to pursue the sport full-time instead of the “safe and easy path,” especially after his injury. “I needed to show them that I was dedicated to it,” he shared. He knew he wasn’t going to do pole vaulting forever, but his dedication to his dream led him to outline a timeline to convince his parents that this was a serious ambition he wanted to pursue.
With that ambition came challenges, such as the constant need for funding and for practice time. He often goes to Italy to practice – sometimes in the summer, while other times it’s to prepare for competing in neighboring European countries.
“In this sport, when you jump over the bar, you know you’ve jumped for the standard. That’s something that says, ‘Hey, you’re going to be an Olympian.’”
His childhood dream to qualify for the Olympics came true when he cleared 5.81 meters in Piazza Chiari, Italy, setting a Philippine record in the process. That moment still gives Obiena goosebumps, since it gave him vindication and validation that all his efforts weren’t wasted. “All the emotions just rushed in. It’s just pure bliss and joy. This is something that I dedicated a lot of my time to. I’ve given up a lot of things [for this]. It’s something that I never thought I would be able to achieve,” he shared. “In this sport, when you jump over the bar, you know you’ve jumped for the standard. That’s something that says, ‘Hey, you’re going to be an Olympian.’ Less than 1% of the population is going to the Olympics. Just saying I’m one of them puts a smile on my face.”
Everything came to a pause, however, when COVID-19 impacted the world. The Tokyo Olympics were moved a year, to 2021. With Italy then under lockdown due to it being one of the hardest-hit countries, Obiena’s training came to a halt and he was stranded in the country for most of the year. After a month of not training, he resumed a patterned daily schedule to maintain his shape. He wakes up at 7:30 am to prep his breakfast and to check his emails. Training is at 9-9:30 am, and then he has lunch by 12:30 pm. After resting in the afternoon, he resumes practice at 4-7 pm. “That’s almost every day of my life here in Europe and unless I’m traveling and competing, that pattern is very stable,” he shared. At the time of the interview, he was in Poland to compete Janusz Kusocinski Memorial Meet the next day.
Competing has resumed, but he admits the loneliness persists. “I miss my family. I’m human. I long for relationship. I long for the people I care about. I want to spend time with them, especially how this year showed us how short life can be,” he shared. He began questioning if continuing to compete in sports is “still right,” in light of the current pandemic. He admits that competing is his way of coping with this and improving his mindset from the long distance from his family and the persistent dangers of the virus. Talking with his ever-guiding coach and the people who supported him have kept him focused and intact.
“I miss my family. I’m human. I long for relationship. I long for the people I care about. I want to spend time with them, especially how this year showed us how short life can be.”
Someday, he expressed wanting to share awareness of what pole vaulting is to fellow Filipinos. “Pole vaulting is an extreme sport. People would think you’d be crazy to do that. Who in their right mind would want to jump on a stick to go as high as 18-20 feet?” he says, continuing, “The art of the event is so attractive to me, since I’m not physically extraordinary, but that’s something that I appreciate. There are so much complexity and a lot more ways to go about it. There’s no perfect way to vault.”
Obiena is grateful for being able to be a professional athlete, which is a field that Chinese-Filipinos like him don’t often pursue, and for having supportive parents who advise him at his every step even if they are far away from each other. “The world is changing now. There’s no single, straight path to stability. More and more people who are not doctors, not lawyers, not engineers, they’ve been successful in life. That shows that the stereotypes that Chinese-Filipinos see are not a stereotype anymore,” he concluded, continuing, “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.”