ERNEST John Obiena fired a warning shot to his rivals yesterday that he should not be overlooked in next year’s Tokyo Olympics, ruling the star-studded men’s pole vault event of the 59th Golden Strike meet with a season-best jump of 5.74 meters at the Metsky Stadium in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
In a battle of wills and nerves with France’s Renaud Lavillenie, Obiena emerged triumphant over the 2012 London Olympic gold medalist and former world record holder after both cleared the same height of 5.74 meters on their second tries.
Both athletes failed in their jump at 5.84 meters.
The country’s first Olympic qualifier took the gold on the countback since he cleared 5.64 meters on his initial attempt while the veteran Frenchman made it on his second try in the World Athletics Continental Tour gold meet.
“Of course, there’s a little bit of pressure there competing with the best of the best.
Competing with Renaud and what he is able to do, I feel proud that I was able to do it. At the same time there was a little bit of nerves just competing against him,” Obiena noted.
“That is what pushed me to jump a little better.”
Settling for bronze was two-time American world titlist and defending champ Sam Kendricks who cleared 5.64 meters, relegating to fourth Brazilian Rio Olympic Games gold medalist Thiago Braz, who also did 5.64 on his third and last attempt.
Obiena earned $3,000 (roughly P145,000) for his winning effort while Lavillenie got $2,250 (P109,488) and Braz (P72,000), respectively.
Braz and Obiena are training partners of noted Ukrainian coach Vitaly Petrov, the former mentor of world and Olympic champ Sergey Bubka, who heads the World Athletics elite training camp in Formia, Italy.
“EJ’s feat is the result of a collective effort and the support and acts of voluntary kindness not only from the usual supporters but from people like coach Vitaly Petrov and even Thiago Braz,” noted athletics chief Philip Ella Juico.
“It’s important that you learn to live with others. You may be the best athlete, the best pole vaulter but all of that is for naught if you don’t get along with others, if you don’t command the respect of your colleagues,” Juico added.
Obiena’s father-coach, Emerson, said he believes the presence of Petrov in the meet helped his son to be more focused and mentally prepared.
“Nandoon si coach Vitaly kaya nagkaroon ng important feedback si EJ kaya ‘yong adjustments na kanyang dapat gawin nagagawa niya. Di kaparis noong nag-iisa lang siya,” noted the elder Obiena, a former national pole vault standout and 2005 Southeast Asian Games silver medalist.
Watching his son perform on the video of the meet, he observed that “decisive ang mga tries ni EJ. Less hesitation,” pointing to the fact that the athlete cleared 5.34 and 5.54 meters on his initial attempts.
The crack field also included reigning US indoor champion Matt Ludwig and Polish European indoor champion Pavel Wojchiekowski.
The elder Obiena said his son’s win was a huge morale-booster in his buildup to the Tokyo Olympics.
“Practically, this is the Olympic field. Ang kulang na lan duon si Armand Duplantis,” he said of the Swedish-American pole vault sensation who holds the world record of 6.18 meters.
The elder Obiena said up next for his son is a competition in Poland on Friday (Saturday in Manila). He expressed optimistic that his son’s latest performance could likely get him an invitation to the Rome leg of the Diamond League athletic series on Sept. 17.
Dubbed the Golden Gala Pietro Mennea trackfest, named after Italian Olympic 200-meter champion Pietro Mennea, the event starring Duplantis will be held at the 70,000-capacity Stadio Olimpico, the track and field venue of the 1960 Rome Olympic Games.