The POST exclusive interview: Pole vaulter EJ Obiena poised to bring home medal from Paris Olympics

EJ Obiena on life in training, winning, losing, athletes he’d like to meet, and the mental preparation it takes to compete at this level.

Nobody would have noticed the seats if the times were normal because they’d be occupied. But it was anything but normal in those 16 days when the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were finally held on July 23 to August 8, 2021.

Japanese architect Kengo Kuma designed the Japan National Stadium to host 68,000 spectators. It was going to be the main stadium for the games’ opening and closing ceremonies, and the venue for track and field events in the Summer Olympics in July 2020.

Then the pandemic happened. What would have been a fun, anime-themed, futuristic Olympics that we glimpsed in Rio de Janeiro in 2016—where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared as Super Mario in the closing ceremonies—became a headache for Japan, eventually costing the country $12.9 billion.

Pole vaulter EJ Obiena’s first Olympics was the pandemic-era Tokyo Olympics in 2021. “It was a bit weird. There were no people, it was literally an empty stadium.” All photos from @ejobienapv on X run by @vmgasia, and EJ’s Instagram account

Instead of thousands of cheering fans, the stadium was dead silent. The world’s best athletes competed without spectators yet the seats that Kuma designed in earth-toned gradients looked as if people were sitting on them—at least that’s what they looked to me watching on TV as the cameras followed the athletes running in superhuman speed around the track.

This was the first Olympics for then 25-year-old Filipino pole vaulter Ernest John “EJ Obiena,” ranked No. 6 in the world that summer. He is currently ranked second today, less than six weeks to the opening of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

In an exclusive Zoom interview with The POST, EJ recalls the Tokyo Olympics, saying, “The Olympics were a bit weird. There were no people, it was literally an empty stadium. It’s difficult for me to tell you what my first Olympics experience was like because I was not in the Olympic Village. Unfortunately, the Philippine team had Covid so they blocked the building when I was about to go to Tokyo. I was not billeted in the village, I was in a hotel,” he says.

For many sports, there is a holy grail, a mythical barrier. The 6-meter height in pole vault was like the sub-two hours in marathon. For decades, even athletes thought they were unattainable…until someone broke them. EJ first cleared 6m in 2023, joining the exclusive club started by Sergey Bubka in 1985.  

A total of 23 World records and 12 Olympic records were broken across various sports in Tokyo that year. One of the most spectacular wins at the stadium was by Norwegian hurdler Karsten Warholm, who took the Olympic gold in the 400m hurdles with a record time of 45.94 seconds. Four weeks earlier, he broke the 29-year record of Kevin Young in the 400m hurdles in Oslo, Norway.

EJ had an impressive performance—he advanced to the finals but fell short of a podium finish. He humbly said after the Olympics, “I ask that I be given time to adequately reflect and learn.”

There is a picture of EJ  during his event in Tokyo where he is seemingly floating in the air, the crossbar just above his head, erupting in jubilation and relief, with Kengo Kuma’s empty chairs behind him like colored pieces of a puzzle finding their places.

An indication, it seemed, of his next three years as he began resetting records and climbing up the rankings.

Days go by in Formia, Italy

With his coach since 2014, Vitaly Petrov. On Petrov’s birthday, EJ wrote on X: “The LEGEND continues at 78 years young. Coach Vitaly has changed so many lives including mine. My career has been greatly influenced and molded by him.” Photo above by Elijah Cole

Located halfway between Rome and Naples, the Italian town of Formia overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Apart from its place in history and Roman ruins, it is famous for its Olympic Training Center, founded in 1955 by the Italian National Olympic Committee.

National teams without proper training facilities send their elite athletes there. EJ is one of the many Olympians currently training in Formia. On the eve of Father’s Day weekend, the athlete who’s also a PLDT Home Ambassador describes his (almost) spartan life in Formia.

EJ trains twice a day in Formia—four hours each in the morning and late afternoon. By the time his day finishes at around 8 pm, all he wants to do is to get some rest so he could do the exact same thing the next day…and the next and the next.

He drives a modest car that takes him from his accommodations to the training center. When I jokingly ask why he isn’t driving an Italian car like a Maserati, he laughs and says, “I wish!” 

He trains twice a day—four hours each in the morning and late afternoon. He cooks his own breakfast, then he prepares for his day (he brings about five or more poles in his bags, he previously said), and is at the track at 9:30 am. He breaks for lunch at the training center or goes home to eat and goes back to the track after three hours. By the time his day finishes at around 8 pm, all he wants to do is to get some rest so he could do the exact same thing the next day…and the next and the next.

EJ with his dad, former pole vaulter Emerson Obiena, and mom, former hurdler Jeanette Obiena, at the Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Forum in October 2019. Photo from Wikimedia

EJ first went to Formia in 2014. His father Emerson Obiena, a pole vaulter who won silver at the SEA Games in 1995 (the year EJ was born) and his coach at the time, brought him there to meet the Ukranian pole vaulter Sergey Bubka to get his autograph. Bubka actively competed for 20 years, from 1981 to 2001.

It was the legendary Bubka who paved the way for EJ to be trained by his own coach, Vitaly Petrov, starting in 2014. EJ was 18 when Emerson turned over the coaching of his son to Petrov.

The Obienas relationship always had an interesting dynamic because, as EJ says, you can’t turn off being a father and son or coach and athlete. “Our relationship now is better than ever. I do appreciate the knowledge and wisdom my dad taught me through the years.”

Six meters

EJ Obiena seemingly ponders the crossbar: Pole vaulters are often described as athletes with the skills of a gymnast, a weight lifter, and a sprinter.

For many sports, there is a holy grail, a barrier that proves to be mythical in the end. The six-meter height in pole vault was much like the sub-two hours in marathon. For decades, even athletes thought they were unattainable or, if they were, they wouldn’t see anyone accomplish it in their lifetime.

Olympic gold medalist Sergey Bubka was the first pole vaulter to clear 6.0 and 6.10 meters; he also broke world records 35 times.  Bubka first cleared 6.0m in Paris in 1985 (and several more times) and 6.1m at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

EJ Obiena joined this small, exclusive club in 2023  when he cleared 6m at the Sparebanken Vest Bergen Jump Challenge in Norway, breaking his career best of 5.94m and the Asian record.

“The first time you do six meters is always a moment to remember.”

Did he know that he would when he launched himself in the air? “I knew it was a good, decent one. That I would make at least six meters. I was happy that I made the bar—that was my first reaction because I was trailing two American guys at the competition and I needed to make the bar at first attempt so I could put the pressure on them,” he says.

“At the back of my head, I was like, it’s a six-meter bar. But at that point I was also thinking, ‘this is just a bar that I need to make.’ I remember pumping my fists and chest, and thought, I just jumped six freaking meters! I started running to my coach and tearing up. Yeah, it was fun.”

It looks so quick watching it on TV, but here’s a breakdown of how pole vaulters do it. Imagine EJ running on the track, gaining speed and positioning himself for takeoff (in 20 steps), then planting his pole in the box and driving his legs upward. He tucks into a compact position, aligns his body vertically above the pole, then he rotates his body to face the crossbar, arches his back, and pulls his legs and torso over the crossbar—at six meters.

It’s no wonder that pole vaulters are described as athletes with the skills of a gymnast, a weight lifter and a sprinter.

Six meters, says EJ, is the height of a two-story building. It’s also twice the height of a basketball hoop; the height of the tallest giraffes in the world; and the height of a standard street light.

“The first time you do six meters is always a moment to remember,” he says.

The other significant moments in his career are the losses. “You learn more when you lose, they make you want to do better. Well, it depends on how you see ‘significant.’ For me, at least, I try to see it in a more positive light. I would say the first World Championship medal in Europe was significant considering everything that I was going through at that point. That was something that took heaven and earth for me to be there and it really took a lot from me mentally, but at that moment I knew I was a world medalist.”

“Budapest was pretty good because I was world number two coming in,” he continues. “I remember thinking, this is the meet that would define me. I knew I was capable of jumping with these guys and I wanted to challenge Mondo (Duplantis) and I was capable of doing it. I mean he was the only guy who beat me at that meet and I’m very proud that I pushed him to his limits as well. There are a lot of significant wins, also significant losses for sure.”

Risks and rewards

“Took my chances, but it did not work out. Clearing one bar in the whole competition and coming in 9th place. The reality of sports sometimes.”

Gymnasts call it the “twisties.” At the Tokyo Olympics, American gymnast Simone Biles, who has won 37 Olympic and World Championship medals, removed herself from four event finals because of the twisties or a kind of disorienting mental block when gymnasts lose control of their bodies and they don’t know where the floor is.

While the exact thing doesn’t happen to pole vaulters, EJ says disorientation can happen too, just one of the risks that can cause athletes injuries, making mental training very important in his regimen. (Australian Olympic pole vaulter Simon Arkell writes more about this.)

“There’s a physical and mental side to training. The Italians call it labyrinthita. You’re praying to God that hopefully you land safely because your world is spinning when you’re in the air. It’s a very individual thing that you train for.”

EJ has been working with US-based sports psychologist Dr. Sheryll Casuga since 2019. “She really helps me use my competitive mindset. I’ve learned what kind of an athlete I am. I don’t know if you watch basketball: so Draymond Green is a guy that doesn’t want to lose and on the same team you have Steph Curry, who I’d say is a guy that wants to win. They have different mindsets that influence their approach to the game. Knowing what kind of an athlete you are plus your own experiences can help you. “

Fellow Olympians

Photo by Rio Deluvio

The Paris Olympics are going to be a far cry from Tokyo’s pandemic games. For one, there will be fans; and second, athletes will be able to watch other events. Kobe Bryant said in the documentary Redeem Team that every athlete at the Olympics is at their peak—physically, mentally—and is one of the few chances to be with the only people in the world who know the sacrifices and hard work it takes to get there.

EJ reveals that the event he wants to watch at the Olympics is tennis. And if he could meet and have dinner with any Olympian past or present, they’d be Lebron James, Roger Federer, and Stefan Djokovic.

Still with a couple more competitions to go, EJ is focused on his training and not yet thinking about the Olympics. The world rankings could still move but he says they’re just a gauge of where you and your competitors stand. He’s leaving for Poland this week for two competitions, another one in Paris in the first week of July. In the past four weeks, he tied for silver at the Oslo Bislett Games in Norway and won gold at the USA Track and Field Los Angeles Grand Prix. (UPDATE: EJ clinched back to back gold in Poland with 5.97m and 5.87m jumps on June 21 at the Irena Szewinska Memorial in Bydgoszczand, and on June 23 at the Memorial Czeslawa Cybulskiegoon in Poznan, respectively.)

He does reveal that the event he wants to watch at the Olympics is tennis. And if he could meet and have dinner with any Olympian past or present, EJ says, “I’d love to pick LeBron James’ brain. I’d love to understand how he’s able to perform at his peak for so many years. What motivates a guy that was born in a rough neighborhood and raised by a single mom. And he never had any serious scandal, he’s still married to the same woman and they have upstanding kids. It’s pretty interesting to me how he got out of the system, how he processed those things.”

Stefan Djokovic and Roger Federer are two other athletes he would love to sit at the same table. “I think Federer has impacted tennis so much that he shaped it into what it is now. Djokovic was the ‘bad guy’ of the circuit—how did he deal with it? All these greats, I really want to know what makes them go the extra mile. Those would be interesting conversations.”

Incidentally, Lebron has two Olympic gold medals and one bronze; Federer has one gold and one silver; Djokovic has one bronze (and 24 Grand Slams, just saying).

Fans and socials

April 2023 with coach Vitaly Petrov: “It has been a busy few weeks and adjusting to new things (hasn’t been easy). Finally here in Spain for some deep dive to training & more training. Let’s get it!!!” EJ writes on X.

EJ is in a position to influence the next generation of Filipino Olympians. Even his father has said he hopes young athletes can learn from and be inspired by his son’s hard work. Like many Filipino athletes, it’s a fairy tale story for this boy who was born and raised in Tondo, Manila to carve a name for himself on the international stage. He makes it a point to say that his family wasn’t rich, that they were lower middle-class, but his parents provided for him and his sister, and fueled their dreams.

It wasn’t until he was 20 or 21 that he could compete with the world’s best. “It took me a while. I was decent in local competitions and one of the best in my batch, which is why I got a scholarship. But internationally I was nobody.”

It was when he began training in Formia that he “started improving quite fast. I think it was in 2016 that I broke the top 50 in the world, and in 2017 I was 30ish in the world. Then I got injured just as my career was kicking off. I got back in 2018, which was a rough year. In 2019, that’s when I started qualifying for my first Olympics, for World Championship, and had my first Asian Championship then broke the record. Then Covid came in 2020, 2021. It’s been a slow and steady progress.”

With fellow podium finishers at the Asian Games.

As an elite athlete, does he get weird messages from fans or marriage proposals? “I used to. Now I don’t open Instagram message requests anymore because…sometimes you receive things you don’t want to see.”

From women or men? “From both.” Ahh, finally the very serious EJ Obiena breaks into a smile and laughs.

He sometimes shares what fans write him, like this mom’s message: “People like you make us look forward and encourage us to pray for the future of the Philippines. Thank you for your excellence.”

He adds, “Most of the fans are good people that are just really into track events. The ‘worst’ aren’t even that bad. Someone once asked me to sign her baby’s forehead, sorry no. One young girl asked me for a sock, which I gave. Most of them are very, very good people.”

Fans and the entire country will be following EJ’s competitions before and during the Olympics—predicted by many sports experts to result in a podium finish in Paris.

EJ doesn’t think about these things. He’s trained to block out everything, even his own emotions. Athletes call this being “immersed,” not worrying about doubts or outcomes, but just trusting their skills. Because after a great performance, there is enough time to enjoy the roar of spectators. For a feat like the Olympics, a lifetime to enjoy it, in fact.   

The new lifestyle.