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Copping bronze in Worlds still surreal for EJ Obiena

When EJ Obiena made history when he won the bronze in the men’s pole vault — the first-ever World Athletics Championships medal for the country, most of the 110 million Filipinos knew of his struggles to go through before taking that feat.

Early this year, the world no. 6 pole vaulter had a row with his federation — the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA) — for alleged embezzlement of funds (which was later cleared by no less than the Commission on Audit) that saw him miss the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Serbia.

He got the nod to compete in July’s Southeast Asian Games in Hanoi, Vietnam when the Philippine Sports Commission stepped in to include Obiena’s name in the list of entries in the Games. The 26-year-old was able to defend his gold in the My Dinh National Stadium with a new Games record to boot at 5.46 meters.

Obiena was also cleared to play for the two Diamond League legs in Oslo, Norway, and Paris, France, but he, unfortunately, contracted COVID-19. Nonetheless, the 2021 Diamond League finalist still did what he can do to stay in shape once he got better.

“During COVID, I felt very sick for two to three days. It was that tough time,” he recalled. “After that, I was OK. Then, I was in isolation because that’s the minimum requirement, and that’s a week or seven days in Italy. So what I did was just maximize what I can do in the house, in the flat. I kept running around there, doing some plyometrics, doing some body-weight workout, and all that to just kind of like maintain.

“But I think COVID just had these lingering symptoms like shortness of breath for three weeks.”

The virus took its toll on his body and it was not until a few days before he fly to the United States for the Worlds when he could finally say that he is back again.

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The University of Santo Tomas product said, “I just felt good, I should say, a week ago. That’s just when I felt like OK, feeling like myself again. I’m not running out of breath when I’m jumping, which is odd.”

Just when he thought the coast is clear for his goals at the Worlds, the Filipino track standout encountered another mishap when he was detained for 12 hours at the Los Angeles International Airport because of his allegations of malversation of funds and falsification of documents from PATAFA.

Obiena was later released, but it took some precious time for his training and recovery.

“Training-wise, I was delayed by a day. So, recovery-wise, I lost a day of recovery. Mentally, I think, I’m just a little bit wary of going to these border controls. You know it’s odd because I was invited to be there. It’s not I’m there to do something else. I was invited by World Athletics to be In America to compete in the World Championships. I mean, nothing more than that,” he said.

“It’s definitely unfortunate that it happened, but it’s not something that big time or it messed me up. I, of course, preferred na hindi sana nangyari. Pero nangyari na, tapos na, we move on and we move forward; then we do what we can.”

That is why when the Asian record holder took the field on Sunday at the Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, he thought of nothing but just what he ought to do — clear as many heights as possible.

That focus and that mentality eventually saw him facing 5.94 meters — a height he attempted before, but have not cleared. He faltered on his first try and knew he needed to do something, not really thinking of the height of the bar by then.

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He shared, “Feeling-wise, I think it’s not big of a difference. At that time, the number has not been registered. It’s not like, ‘Oh, this is a height that I have never jumped.’ or ‘This is gonna be the new Asian Record.’ It is just a bar that I need to make to keep progressing in the competition. I think that’s the way I felt about it, and that’s how I approached that attempt or those attempts.

“I think I didn’t tweak a lot. We just went out with a bigger pole and do the same exact thing. That’s what Vitaly [Petrov] was telling me after I took the first attempt. He said, ‘The pole’s just too soft for you; we need to move up.’ And that’s what we did. And he knows what he’s doing; that’s why I made it,” the reigning Asian champion added.

And made it he did, as he not only raised the Asian record — his own mark as well — by a centimeter (which in the process became his new personal best and a new Philippine record), but also captured the very thing he hoped for — a maiden medal for his beloved country.

“Winning a medal is, of course, how do you say, very happy, ecstatic, and all these positive emotions. To be honest, I thought that I’m gonna be a little bit happier than this,” Obiena said.

“But, if I knew that I was gonna jump [5.]94, I don’t think so. Having all that happening in the past few months, getting COVID and all that. I knew I had the shot. And I have to maximize it and do the best that I can. I guess, at that day, the best that I can is 5.94.”

With great things happening for the budding Filipino legend, he knew he had a lot of things still left on his plate, and he is up to the challenge with more tournaments coming and, of course, the following season.

“There’s gonna be a lot of off-season training. There’s gonna be a lot of work that I need to do. But, I’m looking forward to it. I want to know what I’m capable of and I think the more championships, the more things I can compete in and hopefully win — those are accolades that are going to be set in stone. And, hopefully, I can continue to do what I do.”

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