He may be only 25 years old, but pole vaulting star Ernest John "EJ" Obiena has made leaps and bounds in his young athletic career.
Track and field is in EJ's blood. He has athleticism coursing through his veins as the son of former national pole vaulter Emerson Obiena, who represented the Philippines in the 1995 and 2005 SEA Games, and Centro Escolar University hurdling student-athlete Jeanette Obiena.
Growing up hanging around the track, he first took up pole vaulting when he was 6 with his dad as his coach.
"When you're a kid and you see someone fling themselves 16 feet up in the air, you get amazed and you just want to imitate and try. You just want to feel that feeling of free fall," Obiena shared in a video by The Score.
He followed in his mother's footsteps when he focused on hurdling, competing in 100- and 400-meter hurdles for his high school, Chiang Kai Shek College.
But after realizing that pole vaulting could open doors and college scholarships for him, Obiena shifted back to the sport during his last two years in high school. He went on to study and compete for the University of Santo Tomas.
His passion for pole vaulting burned brighter when he flew to Formia, Italy in 2014. There, he trained with renowned Ukrainian coach Vitaly Petrov and exposed himself to the sport as well as other athletes like Brazilian Olympic gold medalist Thiago Braz.
At 18, the young athlete was breaking national records for pole vaulting and was able to compete in international sports events like the Summer Universiade and the SEA Games.
In his first SEA Games in 2015, Obiena took home the silver medal after leaping 5.25m. His next SEA Games journey in 2017 didn't go as smoothly as the pole vaulting prodigy tore his ACL during a training session a day before leaving for Kuala Lumpur. He was taken out of the sport for six months.
But Obiena bounced back stronger, leaping to reach more milestones in his young sports career. In 2019, he secured a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, becoming the first Filipino athlete to qualify, after clearing 5.81m in a tournament in Chiari, Italy. This achievement also makes this young gun the first Filipino vaulter to compete in the Olympics since 1992's Edward Lasquete.
On qualifying for the Olympics, Obiena shared, "I've been working so hard. As a kid, that was my dream, my goal. Once you have actually qualified, it's like all the hard work paid off, all the hardship is okay. I'll go through it all again."
The same determination fuels the pole vaulting prodigy today as he competes for gold. As he prepares for the crucial final, Obiena says he's "chillin'." To bag the gold medal, he must leap above 6m, which is above his personal best of 5.87m.
Images from EJ Obiena's Instagram.