Monthly Archives: October 2019

Godspeed, EJ Obiena!

As a Filipino sports fan almost inured to sporting heartbreak, I’m still at a high from last weekend’s world titles from gymnast Carlos Yulo and amateur boxer Nesthy Petecio (special mention goes to out to Azkals for drawing against China at the recent FIFA World Cup qualifiers). Yulo and Petecio, by virtue of their respective titles, join pole vaulter Ernest John Obiena as the Philippines’ first qualifiers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Although I’m ecstatic at our country’s gymnastics and amateur boxing milestones, EJ’s achievement is a lot closer to this ex-sprint hurdlers’ once-athletics crazy heart.

Ernest_John_Obiena

EJ Obiena at the 2017 Asian Athletics Championships (Photo Credit: Wikipedia/Athletics Federation of India

The Obienas have long since been a fixture in the tight-knit local athletics community. EJ’s mother, Jeanette is a former sprinter and hurdler, and is currently involved in track & field officiating and organization. Coach Emerson, himself a former pole vault athlete and a multiple SEA Games medallist, still competes in masters-level athletics events. In the years that I’ve spent as a track athlete (and the two years or so attempting an ill-fated comeback) throughout the Oughts, I’ve often admired this track & field family for their collective love and determination for the sport.

Looking back at my own humble track career, I point to that particularly humid evening in Rizal Memorial back in 2004 as the pivotal moment when I realized how much I loved athletics. That year’s edition of the old Track & Field National Open (they call it by a different name now, I think) was at its latter legs. The Men’s Pole Vault was being bitterly contested by two Thais and the lone Filipino standing, Coach Emer. The two Thais had personal bests of around 4.70 – 4.80m and were ranked at the top of the event back then (track geeks, correct me if I’m wrong!). In the dimly-lit environs of Rizal, watching Coach Emer (then almost in his forties, I think) valiantly compete against the best of the region solidified my commitment to be the best sprint hurdler I can possible be – to be as good as Coach Emer in the pole vault and earn the right to compete with our country’s name proudly emblazoned across my running vest.

Fast forward seven years later to the 2011 edition of the National Games. I was struggling to balance the demands of a full-time job with an athletics comeback. For months in the lead-up to what turned out was my sputtering swan song of a race, the Obienas, the rest of the Philippine Pole Vault Club, and Mr. Hwa Liong took me in as one of their own. Throughout those four days in Bacolod, I saw first-hand how much the sport is ingrained in the identity of the Obienas. As a student of athletics, I relished the constant conversation about track & field. It was eat, sleep, breathe athletics – in a nurturing family setting at that.

But I retired from the sport soon after, disillusioned at the lack of facilities and the worsening Manila traffic. The Obienas, EJ in particular, soldiered on. Even if I’ve long since hung up my spikes, I kept tabs on the local track scene’s developments thanks to social media. From the first time EJ broke Ed Lasquete’s former national record of 5.00m, his first Asian title, his breakthrough Diamond League appearance, and his qualification to the Tokyo Olympics I’ve cheered EJ from afar and drew in inspiration from his many struggles and his well-deserved success.

EJ’s sporting feats are indeed awe-inspiring but not surprising considering the athletics-centered and nurturing familial atmosphere that he grew up in.

Ranked 10th in the world, EJ has a legitimate shot at the Olympic podium. He lives and trains with the best and knows his major competitors from the inside out. The pole vault is perhaps the most technical of all athletics events. Here lies its unpredictability (think Rens Blom at the rainy 2005 Helsinki Olympics).

The last Filipinos to win Olympic medals in athletics were the great Simeon Toribio (1932 Los Angeles, Bronze, High Jump) and Miguel White (1936 Berlin, Bronze, 400m hurdles). The younger Obiena is perhaps our best hope for Olympic track & field glory since Marestella Torres and Elma Muros-Posadas.

Godspeed, EJ! And Fly High!

Follow EJ on social media: @soon_ej

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