POLE vaulter Ernest John Obiena emerged as the first Filipino qualifier for the 2020 Olympic Games early yesterday morning, clearing 5.81 meters to surpass the qualifying standard of 5.80 meters at the Salto Con L’Asta competitions in Piazza, Italy.
While majority of his countrymen were still asleep halfway across the globe, Obiena, who topped the pole vault event in the Asian track meet in Doha, Qatar, last April, cleared the height on his third and last try to beat four other entries for the gold medal in the meet exclusively organized for pole vaulters.
“Perhaps due to the adrenalin, I felt as if I were floating on air as I let go of the pole and went over the bar,” Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association president Philip Ella Juico quoted Obiena as saying during an overseas call shortly after his win.
“It is PATAFA’s honor to have the first Tokyo Olympics qualifier come from its ranks. EJ’s feat comes at a time when the Philippines faces various daunting challenges in the international front, including the 30th Southeast Asian Games,” Juico said. “This (accomplishment) should inspire our other national athletes.”
Obiena’s achievement was far above the gold-medal winning height of 5.35 meters set by Thailand’s Porranot Purahong in the 2017 Malaysia Southeast Asian Games, making him the favorite in the event in the 30th SEA Games athletics championships in December.
Not content with his achievement, the strapping 6-foot-2 Pinoy tried to break the 21-year-old Asian mark of 5.92 meters set by Kazakhstan’s Igor Potatpovich at an indoor meet in Malmo, Sweden in 1998, according his mother, Jen Obiena.
Obiena, 23, almost made it, nearly clearing 5.93 meters on his first attempt, only for his hand to slightly graze the bar.
“Hindi inakala ni EJ (Obiena’s nickname) na ganuon siya babatuhin ng pole,” said the elder Obiena who, together with her husband, Emerson, had a telephone chat with his son in the wee hours of the morning yesterday.
She said that based on her son’s current form, Serbian coach Vitaly Petrov, who mentored Olympic and world champion Sergei Bubka, believes EJ has vast room for improvement “and go as high as six meters.”
“Ako naiyak ako, kasi alam ko ‘yung pagod at sacrifices ni EJ. With God’s will, everything is falling into place,” added Obiena’s mother, recalling her son’s traumatic experiences in the 2017 Malaysia SEA Games and 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Obiena was forced to withdraw from the Malaysia Games at the last minute, suffering an Achilles heel injury on the eve of his departure for the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. He was hobbled by a thigh injury in Jakarta last year.
Mrs. Obiena noted that her son has reset his national record thrice this year, beginning with the Asian championships where he took the gold in clearing 5.71 meters, so that “na-overcome na ni EJ ‘yung mga pinagdaanan niya.
“Dapat na i-continue ‘yung mindset niya that ‘I’m already there and all I have to do is deliver.’”
Next up for her son, she added, will be the World Championships in Doha, Qatar later this month.
“My son will be training for the World Championships in Doha, and he will be bringing that preparation to the SEA Games in December,” Mrs. Obiena said. “His focus is really doing well in the Tokyo Olympics.”